December 7, 2017

Fostering Collaboration: An Intellectual Dialogue to Acknowledge the Sacred Relationship of Native People and the Land

Group at the Celilo Village Longhouse with Karen

My name is Gerardo Gonzalez-Gomez and I have the privilege to serve the Yakama People as an AmeriCorps VISTA member housed within the Special Projects Department at Yakama Nation Housing Authority. This blog is about a low-income tax credit housing development in Dallesport, WA. It is an ambitious plan that envisions housing along the Columbia River bordering Oregon and Washington for potentially sixty families from nearby Indian communities.

The Washington State University (WSU) Landscape Architecture Design Studio team will work with the Yakama Nation Housing Authority to develop a master plan and a planting/landscape strategy that will respond to site specific challenges, historical context and the broader regional and ideological issues tribal communities face in the area. Professors Jolie Kates and Michael Sanchez will lead the team and together will generate several design proposals for the site.

Celilo Village and other Indian communities along the Columbia River

The above picture was taken at the Celilo Village Longhouse, after a meeting with Karen Jim Whitford, a Yakama elder who resides in an Indian community in the Celilo Falls area, near the proposed Dallesport development. It is the only village with established housing, and which historically was one of the region’s great market and gathering places along the Columbia River. Before the dams were established, six tribes had permanent villages between the falls and where the city of The Dalles, Oregon is now located. Currently, many Native American communities living in this area face displacement and are constantly in dispute to keep their cultural values and their land.

Before the above photo was taken, I met Karen for the first time at a meeting with the Columbia River Intertribal Housing Entity in Hood River. The meeting was open to the public and several announcements were made including our Dallesport development. This meeting was quite emotional to me. Many locals gave testimonies, including Karen, who greatly impressed me with her approach to the social injustice tribal members currently experience.

After Karen’s comments and concerns were respectfully presented, I realized she is full of knowledge and is not afraid to speak for the people. I then reached out to her about sharing her views with the WSU students who will be involved in generating solutions for the landscaping of the Dallesport project. Karen agreed to talk to the group and arrangements were made for our team to be welcomed at Celilo Village Longhouse.

A dialogue with an elder- an asset to continuing the tradition of passing it on

On October 23, the landscape architectural team and the housing authority team met for the first time at Celilo Village in Oregon. Karen welcomed the group in a traditional manner. This was a unique experience to many of us who had never experienced the interior of a longhouse and the ritual of gathering inside one.

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While standing in the “wash” (center of longhouse where one is connected to the earth and the sky) Karen shared a few stories and perspectives regarding displacement and honesty. She shared her strong beliefs about how drastically the landscape has changed with the arrival of the dams and how deteriorating it has been to the traditions of the people who had lived there for many years. She asked the group to be honest about everything they do, including the planning for this new development. She suggested medicinal plants as part of the landscape along with native vegetation. As our meeting ended and the group proceeded to leave the longhouse, Karen looked each of us in the eye while shaking hands, and said “atawisha mash,” meaning I love you in Sahaptin.

Natives to the area talk about the need for permanent housing

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The group then visited fishing scaffolds near the Lone Pine Treaty Fishing Access Site- one of the usual and accustomed fishing, hunting and gathering places protected and reserved by Yakama Nation Treaty of 1855. While looking at the suspended fishing scaffolds, Cialita Keys and Deborah Whitefoot, both natives to the area and staff at Yakima Nation Housing Authority, reminisced about growing up in the area and their ancestors’ connection to the land.  

Cialita and Deborah talked about displacement and the current situation of tribal families living permanently at temporary (seasonal) fishing sites in unhealthy conditions without electricity or clean water. Deborah mentioned that after the dams were built and their territory was inundated, natives were promised land and a place to live, and to this date such promises are a political battle among different entities that has not gotten very far. The reason why these families choose or are forced to live in such conditions can vary, but the fact that children are suffering from this social injustice calls for an urgent need of permanent and safe housing for many of the tribal members, Cialita said.

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Creative minds developing a vision through research and collaboration

Our last stop was at the site where the design studio students had the opportunity to ask questions about the overall scope of work for the project and to record the site’s physical characteristics like vegetation, soil, habitat and topography. After this visit, students were assigned to do a full site inventory and research to document geology, current land use and values, flora and fauna, hydrology, history and climate. This studio design group of eleven students will deliver eleven different sustainable design proposals specific to the site and broader region, and include ideological issues that tribal communities face in the area.

As a VISTA member on this project, I have been involved with just about all aspects of starting this low-income housing development and with the collaboration between Yakama Nation Housing Authority and WSU School of Landscape Architecture. So far we have completed environmental reviews, requested and reviewed the qualifications of interested architects and have scheduled a pre-submission meeting with the county. The students presented their final designs on December 6th and the project is envisioned to be completed by 2019.

Gerardo Gonzalez-Gomez is a Cultural and Climate Tribal Resilience VISTA hosted by the Yakama Nation Housing Authority.

 

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