Indigenous Resilience, a Pandemic and a Water Crisis

As we move into November, recognized as National Native American Heritage Month, we celebrate the important contributions and resilience of the state’s first people and recognize critical challenges still confronting Indigenous communities.  

Native American values build strong communities and support a more resilient future for all Oregonians. Respect for family and elders, shared responsibility to care for the land and community and a recognition that today’s actions affect future generations — these values guide significant contributions from Oregon’s Indigenous population 

Oregon is home to more than 100,000 Indigenous people — tribal members, members of tribes without federal recognition and those who self-identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native, both in rural and urban localities. 

Educating oneself on the unpleasant history of how Native Americans were treated — a story rooted in colonialism, strengthens collective understanding of the government's attempt at tribal erasure and Native tenacity and resilience. Native Americans cultures and languages were suppressed, and their communities forced to relocate. Tribal communities continue to endure the pain of broken treaties, one-sided, inaccurate histories taught in schools and large and small injustices of all stripes. With this awareness, we can celebrate their endurance. 

Today Native Americans are rejuvenating language and culture, advancing laws and justice, and contributing to every aspect of society. Their diverse contributions to the arts, land stewardship, economic development, crisis response, philanthropy and so much more help make Oregon what it is today.   

OCF has been fortunate to learn from and partner with inspiring Native individuals and communities in our work around the state. These Indigenous leaders are helping to change the narrative around tribal communities, one that has long omitted Native voices.  

Native artists like recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Larissa FastHorse and Field Artist Fellows Ka’ila Farrell-Smith and Joe Whittle push the boundaries of creative expression. 

Native contributions to philanthropy abound. Educator, leader and philanthropist Carma Mornarich is executive director of the Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation and a board member for the Lilja Family Fund of Oregon Community Foundation. Charles Hudson is a long-term advocate and OCF donor. Tana Atchley serves on the scholarship committee that selects for the OCF Native American-focused Howard Vollum Scholarship, Verl and Dorothy Miller Native American Vocational Scholarship and Ann C. Thornton Memorial Scholarship. 

Today Oregon’s Indigenous communities exist as a testament to resilience as they face enormous challenges.  

Compared with white residents before the pandemic, Native Americans in Oregon experienced higher unemployment, nearly twice the level of poverty, had shorter life expectancy, and received less health care.   

According to an August 2020 report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 cases among American Indians and Alaska Natives was 3.5 times the rate of infection of white people. Inter-generational households are common, making social distancing more difficult.  

Community Response to Dual Crises at Warm Springs 

Failing pipes and unsafe drinking water have affected Warm Springs for years, forcing residents to boil or haul in water. Now the water crisis overlaps with COVID-19, making hygiene more difficult and straining Native-owned small businesses.  

The Warm Springs community is coming together in a variety of ways to both provide support and to fill the gaps in aid from both federal and state sources. The urgency of the situation is driving a series of collaborative relief efforts across communities as well. 

With help from an OCF Oregon Small Business Stabilization grant, Warm Springs Community Action Team (WSCAT) is distributing $250 to $3,000 grants to small businesses affected by COVID-19 to help pay employees, rent, utilities, and other short-term business operating costs. To date, they supported 20 local businesses and hope to assist 8-10 more. 

Ad-hoc crisis relief efforts aim to fill immediate daily water needs. Several mutual aid efforts including the McKenzie River Gathering (MRG) Foundation’s Chúush Fund and Don’t Shoot Portland are helping meet day to day needs by fundraising and distributing bottled water. In 2019 OCF donors joined efforts to quickly fund emergency water system fixes.  

Federal and state funding efforts to date have resolved some acute water system failures, but not to the needed system-wide scale. The State of Oregon contributed $3.5 million for repairs, and federal funds arrived as well. It’s not been nearly enough to make full repairs and upgrades for a sustainable water supply. An estimated $200 million is needed.  

Oregon needs Native Americans’ expertise, values, historical knowledge and creative resilience to help us all thrive. To learn more about supporting Warm Springs water system rebuilding, COVID-19 relief or otherwise supporting Tribal populations, contact your OCF donor relations officer