Gathering in NAYA’s Community Garden for an Unthanksgiving Celebration

Gathering in NAYA’s Community Garden for an Unthanksgiving Celebration

In late November, friends and family gathered at the NAYA Family Center campus to work on the ever-improving garden that took shape over the summer. The two-day Unthanksgiving event, November 25 and 26, was an overwhelming success! Staff were eager to have the ability to share the land with the community and offer an alternative to a colonist-centric holiday. 

NAYA Culture, Education, and Wellness Manager Mick Rose (Diné, Omaha and Pawnee Nations) said organizers expected between 20 and 40 people to show up and lend a hand. Around 130 people attended the event on its first day. Another 70 community members participated on the second day. It truly felt like people were on board with wanting something different, “wanting a new path forward from what we’ve known in our lifetimes,” Rose said.

“(Thanksgiving) is a day of mourning for us. We’re mourning genocide, but it can also be a day of celebrating our resilience as Indigenous people,” Rose said. “We wanted to offer folks a chance to be on the land; give them an opportunity to be on the grounds and just be with everyone. That felt really important, and what better way to spend the day than to be of service to the community.” NAYA’s campus, adjacent to Whitaker Ponds Natural Area and the Columbia Slough, is on the site of historical Neerchokikoo, an ancient Native encampment and gathering site near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers in Northeast Portland. For many centuries, Native Americans from tribes throughout the area came to this land to gather, trade, and build community.

It was the first year NAYA held the Unthanksgiving garden event on the campus, following many more years of conversations with the community. There has long been a desire for a local alternative for the holiday, and elders spoke of the yearly Unthanksgiving celebration on Alcatraz Island. People have been going to the island every year since 1974 to celebrate Native culture and to acknowledge the island’s role in the birth of the American Indian Movement. Rose said having the garden space at NAYA offered the ability to host something special, and there was fall planting that needed to be done. 

Organizers believed the event would be small. Staff bought products from community partner SymbiOp Garden Shop for planting. A couple staff members from Resilience Design, which partnered with NAYA on the garden’s master plan, came to help. There were also staff members and regular volunteers on hand. Then, more and more people kept showing up. Rose and NAYA Community Health Worker Program Coordinator Jennie Brixey (Choctaw) said they reformulated how everyone could pitch in as the crowd grew.

Various native plant species were settled into the soil by eager hands. Among the plants were camas, thimbleberry and willow, as well as nootka and swamp roses, said Brixey. People also helped plant salmonberries, one of the first berries to flower in the springtime and whose seasonal output is linked to the year’s spring salmon run. Camas, Brixey said, is a First Food staple that’s been impacted by colonialism, so reinvigorating its presence in the garden was “pretty cool.” 

Future events in the garden are already being planned, particularly events that coincide with giving back to Indigenous communities. Uplifting, honoring and recognizing truths surrounding holidays are an important part of the planning process, too. Over the winter, Rose, Brixey, NAYA staff and volunteers will continue to work on the garden, building up its paths and generally tending to the space—things that are more difficult during the summer’s heat.

The overall reaction to the event was that of gratefulness. “There was a lot of happiness expressed throughout the day, and people enjoying themselves and working really hard,” said Rose. “There was a lot of energy put toward getting things done efficiently and quickly,” all the while creating new traditions.

Volunteers needed

Staff will be accepting new garden volunteers in spring 2022. If you’re interested in helping out, please visit NAYA’s volunteer webpage for more information. To keep up to date on the events involving the garden, follow @naya_community_garden on Instagram.