Leading in an Indigenous Way

Gabe Sheoships, Cayuse and Walla Walla, is a recipient of the 2023 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Awards.


ICT + Underscore News

In a cornflower blue dress shirt with applique floral designs and a gray snapback with the phrase “Land Back” stitched on the front, Gabe Sheoships walked through the forest paths at Tryon Creek. Along the way, he talked about the first foods and medicines that line the bark chip trail — elderberry, thimbleberry, salmonberry, nettles.

“We’re trying to shift the narrative that forest areas should be just recreation,” Sheoships said. “Groups have come out to harvest nettle and also pulled cedar and gathered different ferns for weaving. So I think there’s a strong history here that we’re hoping to reconnect to.”

Sheoships, Cayuse and Walla Walla, is the executive director at Friends of Tryon Creek and has been a community leader for decades. In part because of his work expanding community access to the park and integrating Indigenous narratives at Tryon Creek, this Wednesday, Oct. 18, he is being recognized as a recipient of an Indigenous Leadership award through Ecotrust.

‍Expanding access

A long, winding road passing Lewis and Clark College and turns leading to expensive houses, eventually shows signs for Tryon Creek. Located about 15 minutes from downtown Portland — on a day without much traffic — the park is not easy for everyone to get to.

Up until a month ago, Tryon Creek was essentially only accessible by car. Thanks to advocacy from Sheoships, staff and board members at Friends of Tryon Creek, last month Trimet added a bus stop on Terwilliger boulevard at the entrance to the parking lot.

Expanding access to the park and who feels welcome there is of major importance to Sheoships.

“Across the U.S., wealthier neighborhoods have access to places like this,” Sheoships said. “Everybody should be able to establish a relationship in this place and take away whatever they may.”

Helping get public transportation to stop at Tryon Creek is just one of the ways Sheoships has worked to create greater access to the park, beyond just for those that live nearby.

Part of expanding access also means creating a space that not only feels welcoming, but also tells an accurate history of the land.

Just a few years ago, visitors walking in the door at the visitor center were met with a story that suggested the park’s history started with settlers, according to Sheoships. Which is far from the truth. Now, when visitors walk through the door they are greeted with a land acknowledgement sign. Many of the books for sale about nature are written by Indigenous authors.

Elders and Native community members are invited to harvest first foods and medicines at the park and events for the Portland Native community take place throughout the year. Friends of Tryon Creek hosted a salmon bake for Indigenous Peoples’ Day and every May the organization hosts an Indigenous Culture Day.

Beyond promoting healing through reconnecting with the land, Sheoships also works to disrupt the ideas of preservation and conservation that are common in environmentalist spaces. Like many Indigenous leaders, he acknowledges that humans are in fact a keystone species and there is a mutually beneficial relationship when active land stewardship — through practices like gathering — is encouraged.

“Like a lot of intact cultural sites, Tryon Creek is representative of the cultural history of the lands. Of people actively attending, stewarding, managing the place,” Sheoships said.

Decolonizing education

Staff and board members at Friends of Tryon Creek are gearing up for the groundbreaking of a project that is a sort of living embodiment of the values Sheoships has instilled within the organization.

At the end of this month, the anxiously awaited construction of the new education pavilion will begin, hopefully to be completed by next summer at the latest, according to Sheoships.

The new education pavilion project is a renovation of the Glenn Jackson Shelter, originally built in 1975. The current shelter is exposed to the elements and has not been redesigned since it was built. The redesign will expand on the base currently there, using mostly cedar and other local materials.

Native art and storytelling will be central elements of the new pavilion. The building will consist of two classrooms separated by a public walkway leading to a deck overlooking the forest. Swimming along the hallway will reside metal cutouts of salmon, steelhead and trout by artist and carver Earl Davis, citizen of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe.

Inside the classroom, art depicting first foods will expand conversations, retelling the narrative of Indigenous people past and present that are too often not taught in school. Friends of Tryon Creek already hosts field trips from schools across the Portland Metro area and the new pavilion will allow the organization to work with more youth in the future.

“There has been a lot of working through what the Western education system hasn’t taught,” Sheoships said. “Our goal is to represent the Indigenous presence both historical and contemporary.”

Four original carvings will be central to the design featuring the work of: Shriod Younker, Coquille Indian Tribe; Brittany Britton, Hoopa Valley Tribe; Gregory Archuleta, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde; and Greg Robinson, Chinook Nation.

The carvings will serve as a representation of trade and Indigenous people coming together throughout the Columbia River Basin, according to Sheoships.

‍2023 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award

Sheoships is one of eight 2023 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership awardees. He is being recognized for his leadership at Tryon Creek and beyond; his efforts to shift narratives in environmental education; and his stewardship of the land and work to protect first foods, particularly lamprey.

Earning his bachelor’s of arts at Portland State University and his masters degree at Oregon State University, Sheoships studied to be a fisheries biologist, with most of his work focusing on lamprey in the Columbia River Basin. However, he is quick to point out the issues with upholding Western education and science over Indigenous knowledge. He even uses air quotes when describing himself as a scientist.

Combining that training and traditional Indigenous knowledge is central to his work at Tryon Creek and so much of what he does is listening to the community needs. At Tryon Creek, he has a few long term goals to help restore ecosystem health: returning prescribed fire to the forest and lamprey to the creek.

In 2021, Sheoships lead the organization in creating a new strategic vision.

“One that really grounds us in being relational with all of our human colleagues, friends, partners,” Sheoships said. “But also our plants and animals that live here in the forest and that we work to support, creating reciprocity and the idea of stewarding the land.”

Tribal leaders have pointed out that when Sheoships took over as executive director at Friends of Tryon Creek, positive changes were immediately apparent.

“When that shift was made, everything just clicked into place,” said Gerard Rodriguez, Yaqui and Nahua, board member at Friends of Tryon Creek. “The community values shifted, the organization really came to life.”

The other eight recipients of the 2023 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership award include: Sgaahl Siid Xyáahl Jaad (Marina Anderson), Haida/Lingít; Kh’asheechtlaa (Louise Brady), Lingít; Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, Haida; Alyssa Macy, Wasco/Navajo/Hopi; Frances G. Charles, Lower Elwha; the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation Youth Leadership Council; and Corine Pearce, Pomo.

“What Gabe holds as the most valuable is the power and importance of relationships, that’s his medicine, that’s what he carries,” Rodriguez said. “It’s the holistic approach that he takes to address social change, environmental change. He leads from a really Indigenous way.”

‍‍This story is co-published by Underscore.news and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.