Coming Home to Nesika Illahee: Affordable Housing Complex for Native Americans

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Building on the success of Neskia Illahee, the Siletz Tribe, NAYA, OHCS, and Metro & Community Development Partners recently broke ground on Mamook Takatee, a 56-apartment complex that will provide homes to Native artists

PORTLAND – You see her lovely tattooed face when driving down NE 42nd Avenue in Portland. Her elegant woven ceremonial cap is distinctive of Siletz Indians. The mural, created by artist Toma Villa of the Yakama Nation, greets residents returning home even before words in Chinook say “Nesika Illahee” or “Our Place.” Known as “Grandmother” she appears transfixed by her work smudging the space with sacred plants. The painted smoke rises alongside the three-story building seemingly cleansing the site where the recently opened housing development, with 59 apartments, sits.

At Nesika Illahee, details large and small were envisioned by Native people to convey a sense of place, cultural grounding, and belonging. Throughout the building, the common space fosters the community connection so integral to Indigenous cultures and showcases Indian artwork. Sculptures, murals, baskets, flooring, even elevator buttons in Chinook honor Native culture and serve as welcome cues that signify, “You are home.” Cultural art once intentionally suppressed for generations under the guise of assimilation is made visible here and celebrated. Residents have access to participate in talking circles, a meditation garden, and traditional healing practices. Pregnant women live alongside elders ensuring ancestral stories are passed down.

This place is special. Finding spaces like Nesika Illahee to share stories and Native customs is particularly challenging for Native Americans living in the whitest city in America. Affordable housing remains out of reach for many displaced people. The 2019 Point-in-Time Count confirmed that Native Americans have the highest rates of chronic homelessness in Multnomah County of any racial or ethnic group. An in-depth report by Portland State University and the Coalition for Communities of Color found soaring housing costs, lack of culturally specific homeless supports, and pervasive patterns of racism and discrimination are some of the many contributing factors to housing vulnerability in the Native community.

To address this urgent need, it is poetic that a tribe historically known for their intricate weaving skills was able to braid together a funding solution. The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians came together with Community Development Partners (CDP), Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), the Native American Rehabilitation Association (NARA), Oregon Housing Community Services (OHCS), Home Forward, and other partners to create a completely new development approach. Their solution: weaving together public funds, including state Local Innovation and Fast Track dollars with the Indian Housing Block Grant to create affordable housing for Native people. This partnership made it possible for the Siletz Tribe as a sovereign nation to exercise the right to implement a tribal preference policy for 20 units as a form of self determination.

Oregon should be proud. Today 115 residents call Nesika Illahee home, the first housing development in Oregon using this combination of resources to serve tribal members living off of a reservation. Nationally other states are looking to Nesika Illahee as a model for innovation not only for funding approaches, but in providing culturally specific services intentionally fostering cultural pride, community capital and Indigenous knowledge.

Nesika Illahee was so successful that in August the Siletz Tribe, NAYA, OHCS, and Metro and Community Development Partners recently broke ground on a second development, a 56-apartment complex, Mamook Tokatee in Portland that will provide homes to Native artists in the same Cully Neighborhood where Nesika Illahee is located. The development is located up the street from NAYA’s 10-acre campus where residents will access cultural services, educational opportunities, powwows, and other community supports. The Chinook name means to “Make Beautiful,” and will foster a space for healing, shared wisdom, and “making beauty.” This celebration of art, culture, and Native place-making is deeply restorative in every sense of the word. Land once home to Native people will soon be home once again. To view artwork displayed at Nesika Illahee, commissioned by Native artists please visit the digital Nesika Illahee art book.

About Author

Kate Gonsalves is the Communications and Public Relations Coordinator for Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS).

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