The Unsung Song of the Chicano-American Indian Study Center of Oregon

The Unsung Song of the Chicano-American...

By Carlos Covarrubias

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On the eve of September 1970, the U.S. sat in chaos. The Vietnam War was raging, President Nixon had his greasy agenda all over the U.S. political machine, and throughout the country young radicals were scrambling to figure out how to undo all the harm previous generations had inflicted on their future.

In Oregon, Frank Martinez, a young Chicano activist working in conjunction with the Valley Migrant League along with many other radical minority community members, organized Oregon’s first ever Poor People’s Conference at the Salem fairgrounds. Represented at the conference were Black, American Indian, Romini and Mexican-American (Chicano) community members from all over Oregon. The conference was called together to discuss issues of welfare, farmworkers’ rights, education, employment, housing, health, police relations, political power and racism. The conference organizers had rallied support from the National Guard in the form of temporary housing, cooking facilities and medical staff at the fairgrounds.

The original intent of the conference was to connect community members to elected officials in hopes of obtaining resources for all poor peoples in Oregon. As the two day conference moved along, the youth set their hopes on obtaining usage of facilities at the defunct Adair Air Force station just a few miles north of Corvallis. The conference steering committee had previously asked governor Tom McCall for access to the Adair facilities to establish a cultural community center which could provide education and human services to Oregon’s poor.

McCall paid plenty of lip service, claiming he was in support of the conference, but it soon came to light that McCall had been granting usage of the base to another private university. Angry that McCall was talking out of both sides of his mouth, the conference, which included members of the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, and the Brown Berets, decided to cut ties with the governor and move forward with more drastic action.

The Brown Berets, acting as the muscle of the Chicano Movement…came to deliver a message to the authorities that claimed domain over poor and indigenous peoples’ land.

After circulating rumors that radicals would soon occupy Adair, the FBI and Benton County Sheriffs and prosecutors nervously set up post at the base. Late afternoon on October 3, 1970, four cars full of long-haired Brown Berets pulled up to the entrance of the base. The Brown Berets, acting as the muscle of the Chicano Movement with the backing of the Poor People’s Conference, came to deliver a message to the authorities that claimed domain over poor and indigenous peoples’ land. With Ray Gonzales leading the charge, the young Chicano militants verbally confronted the district attorney and chief Sheriff’s deputy.

“What would happen if a lot of people came here to protest?” asked Gonzales.
“If they came onto the property we’d have to arrest them for trespassing,” prosecutor Frank Knight replied.
“But this property belongs to the poor, not the university,” Gonzales responded.
“We’re going through, man. Because this is for the poor!” declared another Beret.

After a tense standoff and some quick reconnaissance of the property, the Berets felt that their message had been delivered, promising to come back with stronger numbers. The Brown Berets helped kick off what would be a grueling campaign over the next two years to gain access to Camp Adair.

As the Chicano movement grew, young Mexican-Americans began to rediscover their indigenous heritage and reject an identity which was based solely on the origins of European colonizers. With this awakening came a shared identification of struggle with the American Indian Movement (AIM). Raza at University California, Davis formed bold alliances with AIM and found strength in unifying the plight of the Chicano and the American Indian.

In spring of 1971—after countless protests, rallies, and even an occupation of abandoned U.S. Army facilities—these two groups announced, with much celebration and camaraderie, the release of surplus military property to their shared cause. The property was transformed into a university run by and for Chicanos and American Indians, with specialized classes to connect students to their ancestry and provide vocational skills. The groups decided to name the school Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University in honor of the founder of the Iroquois Federation and the sun god that is at the heart of the pan-Azteca tradition.

Back in Oregon, a Chicano-American Indian campaign to open a similar school called Chicano-Indian Study Center of Oregon (CISCO) was moving forward. Its board listed Pablo Ciddio y Abeyta of Woodburn as President, Wilma Olgesby as Vice President, Patrick Melendey of Independence as Secretary, and Frank E. Rivers of Portland as treasurer. The board filed an application with Seattle’s George E. Hoops, local representative of the Office of Surplus Property Utilization. As its campaign picked up momentum, CISCO found more and more backing, and in June of 1971 Dr. Gregory Wolfe, president of Portland State University, announced personal support. The young radicals gained non-profit status and legal representation in radical young attorney Noreen Saltviet.

CISCO was not the only group after the usage of Adair, however; others such as the Oregon Air Guard and Oregon Game Commission also had applications in with Hoops. Although progress had been made, by October of 1972 the hopes of CISCO becoming a reality dwindled.

Over 150 Indians and Chicanos sat in, singing songs and holding space to demand the title to the Adair facility.

At this time AIM had a national campaign working called the Trail of Broken Treaties, which planned to occupy the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Seattle and then caravan to Washington D.C. before the Presidential election.

In solidarity, on November 8, 1972, the CISCO American Indians staged a mass occupation of the Adair gymnasium, citing a broken 1876 Sioux-U.S. peace treaty promising any abandoned land for Indian educational use. Over 150 Indians and Chicanos sat in, singing songs and holding space to demand the title to the Adair facility. Upon receiving word from local authorities that the land title would be handed over by the Federal Administration of Health, Education, and Welfare (yet another government agency which had to give the green light), the protestors de-occupied the property. In all they sat in Camp Adair’s heatless gymnasium during an unseasonably cold fall for 24 hours, all the while holding powwows and song in defiance of the looming law enforcement presence outside the building.

The summer following the mass sit-in, the Chicano-Indian Study Center of Oregon officially opened its doors. On July 27, 1973, after years of work organizing, rallying, sitting in, obtaining grants, and cutting through bureaucratic red tape, the Chicano-Indian Study Center of Oregon celebrated its opening with children and members from all minority communities. Powwows were held, tortillas were warmed, fiery speeches were given from the lectern of the auditorium, and a new beginning was laid for the radical young Indigenous and Chicano youth. In the spirit of all those who had given their lives defending the land of their ancestors, the radical youth had also seized their time.

Just as it was their mission to continue the spirit of resistance and build for our people, it is our duty to honor that legacy by building something of our own and never forgetting that we too stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.

Historical events as documented by Oregonian archives.

Photos courtesy of Oregonian archives.

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