19. Who is Oregon?
What is an Oregonian?
If you want to be governor, it means you can show proof that you have lived here for the past three years. Yesterday the Oregon Supreme Court issued the opinion that former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof — who was raised in Yamhill County, and owns property there — isn’t Oregonian enough to run for the top job.
It’s the most Oregon thing in the world to have this question of Oregon-ness go to the courts. For as long as I can remember, exactly what percentage Oregonian you are has been a constant, sometimes hilarious and often infuriating topic of conversation. My family moved here in 1990, when I was 8, and yet even some people would not consider me an Oregonian because I wasn’t born in the state and have lived away from it as an adult.
In his gubernatorial bid, Kristof tried to plea with the state that despite his longtime New York address, his heart was always Oregon-shaped.
Perhaps it has been argued before in our courts what makes a person an Oregonian — if it has, I’d love to know more about those cases of identity. In court filings, Kristof’s attorneys argued:
Nicholas Kristof is an Oregonian. That is obvious. He grew up here, he is present here regularly, he owns and pays taxes on real property here. He has a bedroom here. He manages a farm and an agricultural business here. He has hiked the entire length of Oregon along the Pacific Crest Trail, sent his children to OMSI camps, backpacked around Mount Hood, eaten at Mo’s in Lincoln City, and grieved the loss of family members and friends as part of a community here. He has done all of that over decades.
It’s a sentiment similar to one expressed by Kristof in the 2020 coffee table book Oregon, My Oregon, which gets at the same idea:
We Oregonians feel a profound and sometimes ostentatious pride in our state....This is a state that earns the sense of wonder we feel for it.... It is this sense of community and shared purpose — we are all so damn lucky to claim this state as our own! — that inspired this book, and it’s what binds you and me together forever as Oregonians.
Nipping at the edges of Kristof’s own words is a knowledge that this state’s pride has a dark side: a destructive nativism that is as Oregon as timber barons and fog on the coast.
Nativism is something that dominates national politics, but that I don’t think is discussed enough on a state level. It was something I certainly noticed in my short time living in Montana, but for as long as I’ve been an Oregonian, it’s been here, too.
Take this story from 2015: a realtor in North Portland told The Oregonian that “No Californians” stickers had been mysteriously affixed on for sale signs. That realtor said a lot of his properties were devolving into bidding wars between out-of-state buyers with piles of cash, ready and able to snatch up houses well over their asking price. Of course people blamed Californians — the faceless and eternal vessel for people across the West to pour their anger into. This is not new.
But I’ve thought about this story, and the anger that undergirds it, more and more recently as I’ve noticed people introducing themselves by how many generations of Oregon they have in their blood. “I’m a fourth generation Oregonian,” people will say. “My ancestors came over on the Oregon Trail.”
Last July, I wrote about how Kristof’s home county tore itself apart over a walking trail — yes, you read that right. People in Yamhill County killed the trail project — on an abandoned rail corridor owned by the county — over fear that it would attract homeless people from Portland, and cede farmland to be developed into yet another version of Portland.
“That land is the only thing that puts the food on the table for my family,” one farmer told me. “If I do anything to destroy that, I’m destroying my entire heritage.”
There is a sentiment in much of Oregon that the liberals are coming for you: for your land, for your livelihood, for the clothes off your back, for the Oregon inside your heart.
When nativism and a fear of change goes unquestioned, it turns extreme. Look to the Greater Idaho movement — a campaign in Eastern Oregon that has received much press. It is not different than the Liberty State movement I have written about ad nauseam. Several counties — Lake, Harney and Malheur, among others — have all voted to leave Oregon, and join Idaho. Why? They can’t see their version of Oregon here anymore. It’s too liberal. And so they want to fuse their counties with Idaho because, they feel, the state is more ideologically aligned with them. They think they’ve been left behind.
Much ink has been used to talk about why secessionist movements — like the State of Jefferson — may get people riled up, but that they almost never manifest into anything realistic. The Greater Idaho folks try to address this in their FAQs. Among the answered questions there is an attempt to justify why people would ever want to join a state with a mere $7.25 minimum wage: “…a low minimum wage allows people to get their first job and prove their worth. A high minimum wage closes businesses in rural areas.” Read another way: to live in Greater Idaho, you’d better already have money.
There’s also this FAQ: “Why don’t you just move to Idaho?”
Greater Idaho’s answer? “Our families pioneered these counties, so we don’t want to leave the land.”
(I can bet the members of the Burns Paiute Tribe — who experienced their own Trail of Tears at the hands of Oregon’s pioneers — might take issue with that characterization.)
There is a very different nativism in both the Greater Idaho movement and Kristof’s Travel Portland-esque description of what it means to be an Oregonian. To Greater Idaho fans, being an Oregonian means rejecting anything liberal.
To Kristof, it means having the privilege to own land, to take long vacations to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and the Timberline Trail with a backpack filled with expensive gear.
As we well know by now, Oregon was founded in 1859 as a white utopia: a place where even slave-owning men were not allowed to bring their slave. The point was for no one but whites to live here. And, of course, we know those racist roots continue to find their way to poke up through the sidewalk today. They never went away.
All this talk over identity has got me thinking that to be an Oregonian now is to look at the pain of this place head-on, and face it. What it means to be an Oregonian is to feel a mutual pain with our friends and neighbors over the wrongs of this place, and to want desperately to make those things right for the very first time.
To be an Oregonian is to want to correct the narrative of national media and Trump that this is a place of riots and fires and havoc, of progressivism gone awry. To be here is to understand that when people are ignored, they only get angrier and they stay angry. They recognize that there is a canyon between the ideals of so many Portlanders and the actions of the people who run this state.
To be an Oregonian is to point out to our friends from afar that white supremacy is not some ephemeral idea to be talked about on another day. It is a crisis, an emergency right now. It built this state, and in the last handful of years, police and politicians have again and again come to the aid of white supremacists. At all costs, law enforcement in Portland has protected hate mongers and violent actors while unleashing fury on the people who’ve come out to say there is no place for hate in Portland, in Oregon. To be an Oregonian is to keep showing up to be hit with rubber bullets again and gassed again not because of political ideologies, but as humans who are not willing to cast equality and simple human rights aside as an altruistic ideal.
This is what I wish Kristof would have argued in his statement of what it means to be an Oregonian. That to be here now is to not have a frivolous, fly-by view of the tastes and sights of the state. It is to understand the place deeply right now, to feel anger about its past, to look directly into the darkness that plagues it and know that there can be a resplendent rebirth ahead, only if we don’t get tired of trying.