Chelsea Hendrickson on the Spiritual and Personal Work Around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

by Kayla Blau

A groundbreaking report was released from the Urban Indian Health Institute revealed that Seattle has the highest number of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) in the country, and Washington state holds the second highest rates of missing and murdered indigenous women. Native women have been leading the way in responses to the crisis of MMIW through legislative advocacy and community organizing work. In Washington state, two bills were recently passed thanks to the work of native women which increase reporting of missing native women and require law enforcement to improve their response to MMIW through hiring tribal liaisons and improving data collection methods.

Chelsea Hendrickson (Northern Arapaho and Cup’iq) is a force to be reckoned with in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement. She is the Pathways to Healing Program Coordinator for Cowlitz Tribal Health and also works at the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation Labateyah Youth Home. I had the privilege of sitting down with her to talk about her vital work.

Kayla Blau: What motivates you?

Chelsea Hendrickson: This is spiritual for me, it’s a healing movement that is just a natural response to my family’s history. My aunt was murdered in the 1990s here in Seattle, and unfortunately my family’s story isn’t a unique one. There is a common thread of abuse, rape, murder, and having loved ones go missing in Indian Country; we’ve gotten used to the trauma. But the abuse and racism we experience is not normal, it’s not acceptable. I talk to my elders and they encourage me to stand up.

In the 1970s American Indian Movement and Wounded Knee, women were the backbone but four men were the face of the movement. We found our own movement with Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. I feel Standing Rock lit a fire in Indian Country spiritually, metaphorically, and physically. It re-energized and empowered native women as matriarchs. We are the keepers of our language, certain ceremonies, and families. There’s a Cheyenne proverb, “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.” We’re not on the ground.

I grew up in South Seattle in the 1990s, I experienced a lot of racism out in the open. I was teased for it. Now it’s different; our urban Indigenous community we have here in Seattle is more vibrant and stronger than ever. I even see non-Native people opening their hearts and minds [to the oppression of Native people] after Standing Rock, and that might help people care about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. That might lead them to understand the founding and birth of the United States of America was built on the backs of Black and Brown folks and the genocide that occurred here and continues to occur in different ways, like rent spikes and job discrimination.

KB: This is deeply personal work for you. How do you stay grounded and find healing in the work?

CH: This comes from a long line of pain, of Native kids being ripped from their families, kidnapped and sent to boarding schools where their hair was cut off and they were killed and abused for speaking their native language. Up until the late 1970s it was illegal for us to even practice our traditional healing practices; you killed be jailed or killed for it. About 70 percent of Native people live in urban areas now after the Relocation Act, and due to that history of being ripped away from our land, so many of us are missing connections to our culture. Luckily, every summer my grandma Lillian Amos, took me on a Greyhound to Wyoming with her, where I was familiarized with my culture through watching sun dancers fast in the lodge, being around my language and people. A lot of Natives don’t get that connection. My healing comes from my connection to my culture, my spiritual practices, praying with elders, smudging, sweat lodges, and honoring [the movement builders] that came before us.

In the 1970s, Native people didn’t have any services or programs designed for us. Bernie Whitebear recognized the need for native services, and coordinated a takeover in Fort Lawton in Discovery Park with the goal of taking back some Duwamish land to build a community center and health clinic for our people. They brought the military and police dogs out against Bernie and the protesters, but they stayed put for 60-plus days, and that’s how United Indians of All Tribes Foundation was formed. Daybreak Star Cultural Center is a result of nonviolent direct action by native people for native people.

Seattle likes to put on a facade of trying to right the wrongs of genocide, but it can’t happen if we don’t have Native people and people of color in management, in leadership roles, and making decisions. It can’t happen if Native people are always passed over when it comes to funding and grants. Seattle itself sits on stolen Duwamish land; they took Chief Seattle’s name and butchered it, named the city after him, then passed a law that banned Duwamish people from entering “Seattle.” We’re not so far removed from that history, and we need to be real about the impacts of it.

KB: The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Movement is gaining momentum through policy work, community organizing, and social media. In what ways do you see the movement growing?

CH: I see it with the youth I work with at Labateyah House, a transitional housing program for native youth ages 18 to 24. They’re standing up for themselves, and we’re creating community around this movement up and down Coast Salish land. It’s spreading across the nation and changing the narrative.

Back in Wyoming, the town that borders my reservation is called Riverton. I remember a newspaper article coming out when Standing Rock was happening about a protest outside of Wells Fargo. Over five hundred non-native people in Riverton commented on the article about how they were going to “get their shotguns” and were “ready to kill some Indians.” Fast-forward to now, Riverton just declared May 5th Missing and Murdered Day of Remembrance, and I didn’t see any comments like that this time. Instead people are asking how to support. Times are changing, slowly and with a lot of work, but they’re changing.

There’s a lot of events in May for MMIW, like May 1st the King County Council is proclaiming a Day of Remembrance for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in King County. May 5th Tukwila is doing the same thing.

The significance of May 5th comes from remembering the birthday of Hanna Harris, a Native woman who was brutally murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2013. Hanna’s family advocated all the way up to the United States Senate until a proclamation was passed in 2017 naming May 5th National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls.

KB: Aside from supporting laws and policies that protect native rights and women, what are other ways non-native people can support MMIW?

CH: Get to know your Native representatives, like Rep. Debra Lekanoff, the first Native woman in the Washington House of Representatives that was sworn in earlier this year. Support their work. For non-natives, the best way you can support is through money. Put your money where your mouth is and donate to Native-run organizations like Mother Nation, Red Eagle Soaring, Real Rent Duwamish, Urban Indian Health Institute, and United Indians of All Tribes. Y’all love to donate to NPR for your tote bags, but this would actually support Native women and I’m sure Urban Indian Health Institute has tote bags too!

KB: What do you envision for the future of the MMIW movement?

I want to see the next national report showing that high school graduation rates for natives are up by 250 percent, that Native women are in tech companies, leadership, and government. I want to see Native women in the majority of the House of Representatives. I want to see the Duwamish tribe federally recognized. I want to see the orcas and salmon repopulate the Salish sea. I want to see native people in law enforcement, and funding going towards supporting native youth. I want to see spaces dedicated for Native youth like the Boys & Girls Club Iwasil Branch was. I’m tired of seeing the abuse of native women and our environment; we’re all connected.

It’s sad we have to remind people we’re human beings. We have a deep spiritual connection to our land, our women, our families, and so should you. This movement is for everybody, non-natives and natives. Our humanity matters.

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Featured Image: Chelsea Hendrickson