On November 2, attendees at the National Conference of American Indian’s 68th Annual Convention in Portland, Oregon witnessed the release of the unique report The Native American Community in Multnomah County: an Unsettling Profile. Two participants were, from left, Theresa Smith, Cultural Arts Coordinator, Native American Youth & Family Center; and Billy Frank Jr., Chairman, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

New Research on Urban Indian Community Arms Leaders With Tools for Change

Leah Gibson
11/9/11

PORTLAND, Ore.—Historically, research on Native communities has been everything from covered up to grossly inaccurate and even blatantly incorrect. For this reason, Native communities have experienced major challenges in acquiring resources—but for one community, that is all about to change.

On November 2, policy makers, Native American leaders, National Congress of American Indian’s conference attendees and other Native professionals witnessed the release of the unique report The Native American Community in Multnomah County: an Unsettling Profile. This research is the product of a collaboration among the Coalition of Communities of Color, Portland State University, the Portland Indian Leaders’ Roundtable and the Portland urban Indian community, melding academic research and community input.

The report incorporates community-based participatory research, a method that equally prioritizes the findings of the researcher and the voices of the community. Unique to this report, the collaborators have taken every measure to ensure that demographic information is not only accurate but reflects the lived experiences of the community.

One of the most startling findings of The Native American Community in Multnomah County is the level of poverty that is prevalent in this urban Indian community. For example, American Indian people in Multnomah County live in more than 20 percent more poverty than the national average for whites and more than 12 percent more poverty than the national average for Native people. Native children under five suffer the most from poverty; in 2009, Native children under five were almost 30 percent more likely to live in poverty in Multnomah County than the national average for Native people.

Researcher Ann Curry-Stevens asks, “Portland is such a progressive region—but for whom? It’s known all over the country for its progressivity; after doing this research, I know the truth.” Curry-Stevens is also an instructor in the School of Social Work at PSU with a concentration on community-level collaboration.

Despite heart-breaking findings, the report ends on a positive note—a list of policy changes that need to happen in order to combat disparities that affect American Indian people. Armed with this information, Native community members expect to persuade policy makers and funders to prioritize resources.

“Not only is this the first time that we have had a grasp of how deep the disparities really are,” says Nichole Maher, executive director of the Native American Youth & Family Center in Portland. “We now have the research to back it up.” Maher explains that, prior to this report, Native leaders in Multnomah County had trouble proving to policy makers that the individual stories of their community members were prevalent across the community and not just isolated situations.

“We kept going to policy makers and getting the same response: ‘You don’t have the data to support the needs of this community.’ This report will make us all stronger advocates.”

The report is part of a larger project built on a partnership between the Coalition and PSU to publish several profiles on communities of color. Last year, the first report in the project was published and broadly covered all communities of color in Multnomah County.

Indian communities are encouraged to contact PILR for information on how to replicate community-based participatory research to advocate for policy changes in their own regions.

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