On Cultural Competence, Equity and the Multnomah Food Summit

By Sean Cruz

Portland, Oregon—

Before Rose High Bear of Wisdom of the Elders began to say the luncheon blessing at the Multnomah Food Summit, she explained to the gathering that among Native people, it is customary to ask permission first.

Native people are place-based. When visiting another people’s place, it is customary to ask permission of the people whose place this is.

After she prayed for permission, she said the blessing.

For those who understood, this was a watershed moment.

No one, no public body and no organization in the history of this place has ever asked permission for anything of the Native people whose family, whose tribal ancestry originates here, in Portland, in Multnomah County.

They are few in number now, due to long-established genocidal public policy at all levels of government, and the depredations inflicted on them by private citizens over the past 200 years here in Portland, in Multnomah County.

Their ancestral families died so white settlers could become rich with free land and resources. All of their homes were destroyed. Their villages were looted and burned. Their ancestors’ graves were robbed and desecrated and their languages are on the verge of extinction.

Their tribal governments are now confederated, and they remain isolated far from their ancestral homes. None of these conditions are of their choosing.

The only path to cultural competency at all levels of government is through these people.

It is also the only path to truth and reconciliation. It is not too late to apologize.

They had everything they needed here for thousands of years. They were wealthy. Obesity, diabetes and hunger were unknown. The rivers were healthy and full of fish.

Now, the City and the County only know them through intermediaries, through people who are Native to other regions, or through people with no real awareness but who are holding down a job at a key place in the system, or in a relationship that is bound by casino monies.

Or you see them as clients in the system that continues to rob them of their identities and pride.

If the City and the County, Metro, the PDC and other agencies are ever to attain real, effective cultural competency, it is through these people. It is through their elders and their tribal leadership.

Consider also that in Native cultures, women are often the chief decision makers, while the status of women in the dominant culture remains as of second class citizens.

You must show respect to the elders and to the women.

If your office or your organization is truly serious about becoming culturally competent, then you need to start with Lillian Pitt, Ed Edmo, Cheryl Kennedy and Elizabeth Woody, and whoever else they want to include, and you need to listen to them and heed their advice.

Ask them how you can help preserve their languages, how you can help heal the historical trauma, how you hope to do a better job. Explain how you hope to develop a real, genuine friendship based on mutual respect.

They can advise you on the staff you need to hire and the resources you need to reallocate to bring your organizations closer to effective cultural competency.

And one more thing: Justice delayed is justice denied.


Sean Cruz
Executive Director
1000 Nations
Public policy research and consulting
Editorial services

About 1000nations

Sean Aaron Cruz is Executive Director of 1000 Nations and a co-founder of The Friends of Celilo Falls. He is the organizer of the Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival. He is co-author of Winona LaDuke's new book, "The Militarization of Indian Country." He is the father of four children who disappeared into Utah in a Mormon abduction in 1996, and the author of Oregon's landmark anti-kidnapping statute "Aaron's Law" (Senate Bill 1041), named for his late son Aaron Cruz. He writes online as Blogolitical Sean.
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