A Village for the 21st Century
(This article originally appeared in The World newspaper in Coos Bay in June 2016.)
KILKICH — Driving the Cape Arago Highway toward Charleston, you barely notice the sign identifying the Towner sisters’ little patch of paradise.
In a secluded neighborhood above the highway, Aiyana, 5, and Mehia, 2, live in a spacious house that was their mother’s childhood home. An immaculate playground beckons across the street. A medical clinic, a community center and a library are within walking distance. Children come and go under the watchful eyes of protective neighbors — many of whom are close relatives.
This is Kilkich, the Coquille Indian Tribe’s remarkable reservation village. The person in charge, Anne Cook, describes it like this:
“I don’t want to say Mayberry, but it’s kind of a Mayberry.”
Cook is executive director of the Coquille Indian Housing Authority, which manages Kilkich. Built two decades ago as a federal housing project, Kilkich defies the down-and-out stereotypes associated with Indian reservations.
“Most of the people who live here don’t even know what a reservation looks like,” Cook said. “They think this is normal.”
Pride is Kilkich’s most obvious feature. Streets and sidewalks are clean and inviting. Every house is in good repair, every yard well-tended.
Behind that cheerful façade is something more important: community.
Tribal elder Sharon Parrish and her husband, Ron, have lived in Kilkich since 1998. Son Matt, a tribal police officer, lives next door. Daughter Rhonda is down the street.
Sharron Parrish relishes the “sense of belonging” at Kilkich. Cultural traditions are a common theme in community activities. People gather to watch juvenile salmon leave nearby Fourth Creek, and to watch the mature fish return. Parrish, already an accomplished artist in traditional beadwork, is learning basket weaving in a tribe-sponsored class.
Kilkich may be the South Coast’s safest neighborhood. The tribal police headquarters is a converted house on the main residential street, and Coos County sheriff’s deputies use it as a substation. The to-and-fro of patrol cars is a constant comfort.
About 225 people live at Kilkich. Not all are members of the Coquille Indian Tribe. Unlike most reservations, Kilkich welcomes tenants who are members of other tribes. Many families include non-native stepchildren and foster children. In one household of a father and three boys, the youngest son is the family’s only tribal member. Widowed spouses of tribal members are allowed to stay in their homes.
Reservation residents are mostly a mix of retirees and young families. In some cases, senior citizens and 20-somethings share two halves of a duplex, living in surprising harmony.
Only a fraction of the tribe’s members live at Kilkich. But non-resident members routinely visit for health care, celebrations, and various services.
Tom Carney, a longtime Housing and Urban Development official who has watched Kilkich develop, says housing on many reservations is remote and isolated. Kilkich benefits from having tribal offices and services located on-site.
“It’s not just a piece of property,” he said. “It’s everybody’s home.”
Another important factor: Though Kilkich is primarily a low-income housing development, income levels are mixed. Residents who improve their financial status can graduate to a rent-to-own program. Other tribal members have built custom homes on land they lease from the tribe.
“If you have a concentration of poverty, it brings things down,” she said. “Mixed income raises things up.”
Raising people up is important to Toni Ann Brend, who chairs the housing authority’s board. Life was hard for Indians when she was young. Her family lived near the Coos River, in a house with an outdoor toilet. Her parents later bought a house in Libby with tarpaper walls.
“I wanted more for our people than I had,” she said.
The Coquille Tribe’s painful history is one reason for Kilkich’s unique character. In 1989, newly restored after three decades of official non-existence, the Coquilles had few assets and no tribal housing. They bought 1,100 undeveloped acres in the 1990s and built Kilkich from the ground up.
“It’s got a more modern feel, and it was well thought-out,” Carney said.
The housing authority consciously promotes a sense of ownership among tenants. When rental houses need fresh paint, carpets or countertops, tenants help choose the colors. An annual contest, judged by Coos County Master Gardeners, celebrates the best-kept yards.
The pride resulting from those efforts reduces maintenance costs and elevates community spirit.
“It’s about raising people up,” Cook said.
Kara Towner cherishes Kilkich’s spirit. She remembers a childhood spent exploring trails in the woods and swimming in a nearby reservoir. She always felt surrounded by caring adults.
“I knew that if I was in danger, I could go to anyone’s house,” she said.
Now employed as a tribal social worker, she moved back to Kilkich last fall. Her childhood home was for rent, and she snatched it up.
“It’s comfortable,” she said. “It’s home.”
She takes her two daughters to community dinners and game nights at the tribe’s Community Center. Five-year-old Aiyana just graduated from the tribe’s Head Start program, where she made friendships that are likely to last a lifetime.
Towner is excited about the opportunity to move from renter status to homeownership, and she dreams of passing her house to her daughters someday.
“I hope they can come back here,” she said. “It’s a very special place.”