PRINT September 2020



Yale Union Laundry Building, Portland, OR, 2008.

THE LAND SURROUNDING the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers—site of current-day Portland, Oregon, and its greater metropolitan area—was not that long ago one of the navels of continental civilization. The historical homeland of the Chinook, Kalapuya, Cowlitz, and Tualatin peoples, among many other tribes and bands, it hosted a densely populated, multilingual, intricately hierarchical society, engaged in large-scale industry (leaching and warehousing the food staple of acorns in mass quantities), agricultural terraforming (the controlled burning of grasslands and forests), and commercial trade (using a currency based in dentalia, small tusklike mollusk shells harvested from a “central bank” off Vancouver Island). The Columbia River, then as now, was a major trade highway, piping baskets, wapatoo roots, and enslaved people from the western side of the Cascade Range to the eastern high-plains desert and beyond, with Celilo Falls—a major salmon-fishing ground near what is now the town of The Dalles—serving as one of the great bazaars of the pre-American West, drawing people and goods from as far away as the Southwest, the Great Plains, and Alaska.

In the 1830s, successive pandemics, most likely of malaria, decimated the civilization of the Columbia basin. The massive, multifamily lodges on the riverbanks fell into ruin and the remaining citizens were forcibly relocated to reservations far from their ancestral fishing grounds. In 1957, Celilo Falls itself was submerged by the construction of the Dalles Dam, whose cheap hydroelectricity now fuels the server farms of Google. And so what had for millennia been a center of culture and trade became a frontier, a backwater.

The pattern of acknowledgment crossed beyond the symbolic into something more concrete. This was real earth and architecture changing hands.

This general history has been symbolically recognized pretty widely of late in the form of ritual land acknowledgments, the renaming of sports teams and buildings, and the toppling of colonial monuments, but in July 2020, when the ten-year-old contemporary-art institution Yale Union announced that it was transferring ownership of its half-block, thirty-six-thousand-square-foot National Register of Historic Places building in Inner Southeast Portland to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, an organization committed to “mobilizing Native artists, culture bearers, communities, and leaders to influence positive social, cultural, and environmental change,” the pattern of acknowledgment crossed beyond the symbolic into something more concrete. This was real earth and architecture changing hands—the pipes, the subterranean creek, the gigantic ballroom with the wood floors and arched windows, all of it—with the happy result of a national center of Indigenous learning and art again existing in the cradle of precolonial civilization. To many, it seems like a homecoming of sorts, if not historically and karmically long overdue.

RYAN! Feddersen, 900*Horses, 2015, chalk pastel–based paint. Installation view, Tribal Gathering Place, Spokane, WA.

The building’s new/old resident, the NACF, was founded in 2009 as the brainchild of a group of Native luminaries including Joy Harjo (current US poet laureate and NACF board chair), Walter R. Echo-Hawk (attorney, tribal judge, author, activist), Jayne Fawcett (Mohegan Tribe councillor and ambassador), and Elizabeth A. Woody (former poet laureate of Oregon). Thus far, with funding provided by the Ford Foundation, it has functioned as a kind of “Native NEA,” granting money to multidisciplinary artists and Native arts organizations around the country, including—in 2018 alone—RYAN! Feddersen, a mixed-media installation artist; Melissa S. Cody, a fourth-generation Navajo weaver and textile artist; and Jim Denomie, a painter and multimedia artist. As of this writing, more than five million dollars have been disbursed to more than 350 recipients, and with the acquisition of the YU building, the NACF is poised to evolve into something larger and more complex. There are plans for a black-box theater, summits of multidisciplinary artists and scholars, and exhibitions in the new gallery space, beginning with YU’s final curated show featuring Marianne Nicolson, a visual artist–activist of the Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nations in Canada. What the NACF will eventually turn into is tantalizingly unknown, largely because a Native institution like this has never exactly existed before. Whatever it is, says president and CEO Lulani Arquette, it will be imagined and guided using “Native intelligence”and will necessitate a major capital campaign, in part to complete the seismic retrofitting of the building.

Jim Denomie, Toast, 2014, oil on canvas, 48 × 48".

Yale Union, the organization on the other side of this transfer, will meanwhile fade away after a decade of interesting and sometimes troubled programming. This isn’t the time or place, but, someday, someone should do an oral history of YU. In 2008, the building was purchased by an anonymous angel investor who in turn donated it to a group of ambitious young artists interested in a particularly hermetic, intellectual strain of contemporary-art discourse. They ran the institution as a semiprivate kunsthalle, presenting shows by artists including Charlemagne Palestine, Yuji Agematsu, and Terry Atkinson, a breed rarely seen around here, and filled out the building with artist studios, a public-access art library, residency programs, screening programs, and, on the ground floor, Container Corps, an exquisite publication studio and bindery populated with antique printing presses. From the outside, it all looked rigorous, youthful, and glamorously well connected, but for some reason, the local press was antagonistic, complaining early on about the board’s lack of financial transparency, and the general art-going public, perhaps accustomed to funkier, less-spaciously displayed fare, was skeptical. Further, in the #MeToo era, sub-public whispers of dysfunction began circulating through the grapevine. It’s a complicated history, all told, but one hopes its shadows won’t obscure the brief, bright trail of forward-thinking curatorship (often at the hands of director
of exhibitions Hope Svenson), or the raft of cool publications (thanks to print production manager Gary Robbins), that YU leaves behind. In any case, special credit for the rematriation-in-progress should go to the original philanthropist who opened this channel of possibility, and also to Yoko Ott, YU’s final chief executive, who originally conceived the transfer and sadly passed away in 2018.

View of “Yuji Agematsu,” 2014, Yale Union, Portland, OR.

God knows we could all stand some good news. The past few years have been particularly hard on the arts infrastructure around here. We’ve seen the closing of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, the closing of Marylhurst University’s Art Gym, the closing of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, and the closing of the art gallery at Lewis & Clark College. We’ve also seen the passing of Arlene Schnitzer, our city’s singular, irreplaceable patron of the past half century, and a retreat by major regional charitable foundations in their commitments to the arts. We’ve also lost Tin House magazine, one of our important connections to the literary universe, and all our newspapers, daily and weekly, are hanging by threads. To top it off, as of this writing, our city on the Willamette is again embroiled in violence and pandemic, prey to nightly assaults by the personal militia of the executive branch, whose fascist cruelty adds yet another chapter to the long, twisted history of colonization in this wooded theater.

So power to the NACF. The Indigenous community never exited this river region, but their return to public prominence is cause for celebration. No matter how you look at it—as radical institutional critique; as reparation; as a bid for redemption; even as a sad loss of a Conceptual art hub—the transfer of the deed is a significant and inspiring development, unambiguously positioning Native artists as agents of the New and, by extension, giving all of us a reason to believe, at least for the moment, that the possibility of a future exists.

Jon Raymond is a writer living in Portland, OR. His most recent novel is Freebird (Graywolf, 2017), and his most recent screenplay is First Cow (2020), based on his novel The Half-Life (Bloomsbury, 2004).