In a monumental act of repatriation, ownership of the Yale Union building in Portland, Oregon and the land it sits on will be transferred to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF). The 36,000-square-feet space — and the entire Portland Metropolitan Area that surrounds it — is the traditional homeland and fishing and gathering range of several tribes in the region, including the Multnomah, Chinook, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla, and other Indigenous peoples.
Erected in 1908 and occupying half a city block, the building is located along the southern border of the Buckman neighborhood in Portland. Since 2010, it has housed the Yale Union, a nonprofit contemporary art center founded by artists, and its property title includes a covenant stating that its use must be restricted to serving the arts. This legacy continues as operations are taken over by the NACF’s Center for Native Arts and Cultures (CNAC); it will operate as the Portland-based organization’s new national headquarters and as an exhibition and community space for Indigenous artists.
The transfer is an acknowledgment that Yale Union was able to operate “through the unearned privilege of property ownership,” according to Flint Jamison, president of Yale Union’s board of directors. “It’s now time that we hand over the keys,” he said in a statement.
The possibility of transferring Yale Union’s property to NACF first came up in mid-2018, prompted by discussions between Jamison and Yoko Ott, Yale Union’s former executive director who passed away that year, about actionable ways in which arts institutions could enact social change.
NACF president and CEO Lulani Arquette believes that the transfer will set an important example for “recognizing the value of Native ownership of property in urban areas across the nation.”
“It’s liberating and encouraging to witness this kind of support for First Peoples of this country,” Arquette said. She continued:
The potential for local community and national partnerships around shared interests through Indigenous arts and cultures is wide open. We are deeply grateful for this transformative opportunity afforded NACF by YU board and staff, and stand united with all to reclaim Native truth, engage anti-racism, and address important issues we face today.
In 2021, NACF and Yale Union will collaborate to co-present artistic programming; later that year, Yale Union plans to dissolve its nonprofit and transfer the property officially to NACF.
“Native artists are not just one kind of artist — we are from multiple tribes, we have different backgrounds, and we have diverse interests. We are visual artists, performers, writers, filmmakers, scholars,” said Brenda Mallory, a Cherokee Nation artist and recipient of NACF’s National Artist Fellowship. “Having a physical venue like CNAC where we can tell our different stories will help our cultures survive by creating deeper connections within the Native world, but also help us to be more visible and to tell our stories, our real stories to broader audiences.”