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PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - A native village called Neerchocikoo once stood at this spot on Columbia slough. Native American Youth and Family Center coordinator Donita Fry says a commemorative plaque designed by the Indian community was never installed.When Old Town-based nonprofit Know Your City appointed Cameron Whitten its executive director in November, it was upping the organization’s political ante.


Know Your City is best known for the historic and cultural tours of the downtown area it offers year-round.

Whitten is the young black activist who staged a 55-day hunger strike outside City Hall to protest homeless policies, then served as an Occupy Portland spokesman and later ran for mayor in 2012.

We asked Whitten to put together a self-guided, day-long tour that could provide a deeper understanding of the history and culture of Portland’s African-American community. And Whitten was more than happy to comply.

Nichole June Maher, president of the Northwest Health Foundation and a past director of the Native American Youth and Family Center, also was willing to chip in with a tour of places where Portlanders might gain insight into the Native American experience in the metro area.

Joseph Santos-Lyons, executive director at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), was happy to contribute with a tour for those curious about the Asian-American experience in the Portland area.

“Portland is not like Paris or London, but we have these hidden histories that give place meaning to folks,” Santos-Lyons says.

Many of the places our experts suggest aren’t your typical, eye-popping tourist hot spots. In fact, more than a few will require visitors to bring their imaginations, because many of them, especially the places with meaning to Portland’s native community, are notable for what was there, not what is.

Still, if you find yourself with a few free Saturday afternoons, we offer the following:

Native American tour: Imagining what

used to be there

Historically, the place we call Portland had one of the largest Native American communities in the West, with as many as 50,000 residents, says Nichole June Maher, who grew up in Siletz, in Lincoln County. Currently, 40,000 people with Native American heritage live in Portland, making it the ninth-largest urban Indian community in the country.

“Actually, everywhere you go in Portland is important,” Maher says. “Every place has significance and every part of Portland is actually Indian country.”

There isn’t much left of the historical native residence here, Maher says, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying to find. She likes to take her four children to Whitaker Ponds Nature Park, where a trail leads off from behind the Native American Youth and Family Center at 5135 N.E. Columbia Blvd.

The ponds connect to the Columbia Slough, near where a native village called Neerchocikoo once thrived. There used to be a small sign drawing visitors’

attention to the site.

Maher’s opinion of the sign? “Pathetic,” she says. “It was only a hundred years ago. It’s one of the ways communities get marginalized. You describe them like they all died.”

A few years ago, the local Native American community designed a better sign, but you won’t find it pointing out where 150 longhouses once stood. The design and approval process became too costly, but that’s only part of the story, according to Donita Fry, NAYA’s Youth and Elders Council Coordinator.

“The reason it never went in was because there wasn’t the political will,” she says.

Stop in at NAYA on your tour, Maher says. Ask questions.

“Every day hundreds of natives from 300-plus tribes in the Portland area are living out their culture (there),” she says.

The Portland Art Museum has a terrific permanent collection of native art, says Maher, who is especially fond of the woven baskets reflecting the diversity of Oregon’s tribes.

Cully Park in Northeast Portland has a medicine wheel in its garden that was designed by the Native American community, which helped raise money to build the park. Cully has the largest concentration of Indians among Portland neighborhoods, and the park is central to that connection, Maher says.

Another spot significant for what isn’t there is South Waterfront. Maher says when Native Americans were moved out of the city limits in the mid-19th century, they were put in a relocation camp at South Waterfront.

“It was awful, really devastating,” Maher says. “Disease broke out and so it has this significance as a really painful place, and 99 percent of Portlanders have no understanding of that history.”

There is a nice new park at South Waterfront named after Elizabeth Caruthers. Go there, Maher says. Enjoy the view of the Willamette and the overhead OHSU tram.

And notice it’s named after a white pioneer woman, not a Native American, as Maher would prefer.

The African-American tour: Murals and a church founded during

the Civil War

Start by walking up Northeast Alberta Street between 15th and 29th Avenues, Whitten says. If you know where to look, you’ll find over a dozen colorful wall murals depicting different versions of the black experience in Portland.

If you don’t know where to look, take a peak at this video about the Albina Mural Project, which is responsible for most of the art: www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPdi5zT-TYs

“That’s the cultural expression, the cultural strength and diversity of our community,” Whitten says of the murals. The mural on a wall of the Black United Fund building at Alberta and 28th is a particular favorite of his, depicting black women leaders ranging from Coretta Scott King to Maya Angelou.

Whitten says a tour of the murals can also provide insight into the tug and pull of Northeast Portland’s gentrification, which has overtaken much of Alberta. “You have organic $5 tomatoes and you go down the corner and there’s this mural of Malcolm X,” he says. “You can see the two different cultural elements mingling together and opposing.”

If you want to understand black Portland, Whitten says, you have to visit Geneva’s Shear Perfection Barber-Beauty Salon at 5601 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Owner Paul Knauls is widely known as “the mayor of Northeast Portland.” If you’re lucky, he’ll include a free history lesson with your haircut.

Whitten calls Knauls “a cultural ambassador for Portland’s older African-American community.” And, Whitten says, Geneva’s is a reminder of the many black-owned businesses that have come and gone in Northeast Portland.

Knauls’ shop, by the way, was named after Knauls’ wife, Geneva, also a pillar of the black community, who died last year.

Before leaving inner Northeast, Whitten suggests a visit to a historic black church. Might as well try out the oldest, he says. That’s First A.M.E. Zion at 4304 N. Vancouver Ave., the latest home of a church that opened its doors in 1862.

You might find only 30 or 40 congregants at First A.M.E. Zion on a Sunday morning, and the choir is small. But consider the history, Whitten says. It was basically illegal for blacks to live in Oregon when the church was founded in 1862 (check out the state constitution’s original exclusion laws).

“Even when we weren’t allowed to be here legally we showed up, practiced our faith, and built community,” Whitten says.

By the way, the new pastor, the Rev. George William Whitfield, “gives a great sermon,” according to Whitten.

Next stop on his tour is the June Key Delta Community Center at Northeast Albina Avenue and Ainsworth Street. The site used to be a gas station. In fact, Whitten says, it was a brownfield. But the sorority women of the Portland branch of Delta Sigma Theta raised money to acquire the property and renovated the building, turning it into a LEED-certified community center. Whitten calls this “the anti-gentrification building.”

Call the June Keys (503-285-2061) and ask one of the sisters for a tour and the story behind the organization’s efforts to reclaim the building. Or visit their website at www.portlanddeltas.org/#!about-me/cicd.

Next, travel up to “The Numbers,” which is what young blacks call the East Portland neighborhoods where much of the community has moved as a result of gentrification.

In Whitten’s view, the Rosewood Initiative storefront at 162nd Avenue and Stark Street contributes none of the beauty of the June Key building. Yet, “that’s the place where you see displaced blacks who have built community,” he says.

Take a look at the colorful mural by local artist Antwoine Thomas on the wall of the 76 gas station across the parking lot. Talk to someone at the front desk about the history of the Rosewood Initiative and how it helps displaced blacks find support in their new neighborhood. Maybe you’ll want to participate in a free zumba class or Thursday craft night.

The Asian-American tour: Bones, prisoners,

and refugees

For an insider’s understanding of Portland’s Asian community, the place to start is the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association building in the city’s historic Chinatown, at 315 N.W. Davis St. But first you’ll need permission.

The Chinese community group has relics ranging from old photographs to ancient paper parade dragons stored away on the third floor of its home office. To get a private viewing of this mini-museum, you’ll need to put together a small group and contact archivist Marcus Lee at the association’s website: www.oregonccba.org/contact-us/.

The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association recently started renting out its first two floors due to financial need, but its third-floor treasures tell a story of Portland’s first Asian immigrants, according to Santos-Lyons.

“Knowing this is the legacy of the first Chinese families to come here, who had to band together to preserve their spirit, that’s what you feel there,” he says.

Second on Santos-Lyons’ tour is a place that’s hard to recognize as a place — the long-neglected Chinese section of Lone Fir Cemetery, with an entrance at Southeast 26th Avenue between Stark and Morrison streets. This corner of the pioneer cemetery originally was set aside for Chinese immigrants, and referred to as the Old Chinese Burial Ground.

According to the Friends of Lone Fir, Chinese immigrants were buried there until their bones were dug up and returned to China, so they could be reunited with their ancestors. Eventually the Chinese section of the cemetery was razed to make way for a maintenance building. But a few years ago it was determined that some of the Chinese settlers buried at Lone Fir were still there.

The maintenance building has been removed. A few small markers have been put in place to tell people what once was there. And that neglect is appropriate, says Santos-Lyons. “It’s a place where peoples’ bones rest, but their names have been erased,” he says.

During World War II, thousands of Japanese-Americans were rounded up for internment in camps in Idaho and California. But 3,500 Oregon Japanese-American residents were first taken to the dirt-floor stockyard that used to be where the Expo Center now stands in North Portland.

Santos-Lyons wishes there were more of a marker at this place than the small Torii Gate, designed by Portland artist Valerie Otani, near the entrance to the Portland Expo Center MAX Yellow Line station. The installation displays 3,500 dog tags to represent the Japanese”Americans housed at the site during World War II. Use your imagination, Santos-Lyons says.

Next up on his tour is Pacific Market at 6750 N.E. Broadway. The Fubonn and Uwajimaya groceries might be better known outside the Asian community, but Pacific Market, surrounded by apartment complexes that became home to many of the wave of Asian refugees who arrived in Portland in the 1970s and ‘80s, was instrumental in turning its neighborhood into a hub for Southeast Asians.

Continue the experience at the campus of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) at 10301 N.E. Glisan St. Santos-Lyons calls IRCO “a huge waypoint in the life of almost every Pacific Islander immigrant who comes into the city.”

He recommends just standing in in the lobby and listening. “In some ways it’s like the Ellis Island of Portland,” Santos-Lyons says. “You can hear 15 languages the minute you open the door, and you see the staff who really reflect the community, helping people who have been in this country a matter of hours.”

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