Shí éí Chelsea Curtis yinishyé. Tódích’íí’nii nishłį, Bilagáana bashishchiin, Ta’neeszahnii dashicheii, Bilagáana dashinalí. My name is Chelsea and I’m a Diné journalist with more than five years of experience covering an array of local news topics in Arizona, and a particular interest in Indigenous communities and criminal justice issues. 

For a long time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in journalism. I wasn’t even totally sure what drew me into this line of work to begin with until I dug deep, thinking of my late Cheii and realizing he had a lot to do with it.

My grandpa was keen on keeping up with current events. Every day, he tuned into KTNN, The Voice of the Navajo Nation, and read the Navajo Times. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him while he sipped his coffee and talked about what he learned. 

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T).

I used to bring him copies of the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff when I briefly reported there while going to college at Northern Arizona University. I’d do the same thing when I landed my first journalism job at the Today’s News-Herald in Lake Havasu City. He’d look over my byline and story and then glance back at me with this big smile on his face. 

He passed away a few months before I was hired at The Arizona Republic in 2019. I know he would’ve been so proud. When I started as a breaking news reporter, I recall wanting to cover Indigenous-centered news, even if I didn’t know what that looked like yet. 

Near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was able to help cover some of the effects the virus had on Indigenous communities. One story I wrote about a young Navajo woman and mother, Valentina Blackhorse, will stick with me forever. She was a pageant winner and had dreams of someday leading the Navajo Nation. She died from complications of COVID-19 at the age of 28.

I spoke with her little sister on the phone to write that story and though we were hundreds of miles apart, I could feel her pain like it was my own. I called my mom as soon as the interview was over. I cried my eyes out. 

Being a part of this coverage made me feel for the first time that I’d found my calling. It was challenging. It also didn’t feel like work because I knew my heart was and remains invested in Indigenous communities. I knew then that sharing the stories of Indigenous people was the kind of work I wanted to do moving forward in my journalism career. 

That’s all led me here: a reporter at Arizona Luminaria centering Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Transgender People in my coverage. My work is supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation and its Fund for Indigenous Journalists. I will launch an Indigenous-led investigative and explanatory reporting project, creating a publicly-accessible database that maps where MMIWG2T incidents occur and writing profiles about the people and families at the heart of this injustice. 

I hope this in-depth project will serve as a model for Indigenous-led journalism that moves beyond traditional journalism, which has too often erased the lives of Native people.

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With the understanding of how heavy this people-centered reporting will be, Arizona Luminaria Executive Editor and co-founder Dianna Náñez encouraged me to ease my way into this new role these first few weeks. But I couldn’t stop myself. 

By the end of the first week, I had drafted a new spreadsheet filled with dozens of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Transgender People from Native Nations across Arizona. I knew this project was going to be challenging but to see for the first time the staggering list of names. To look at their faces in the photos. To read an occasional news story or police report about their disappearance.

It weighed on me.

One woman went missing from my hometown of Sanders, Arizona in the late 1990s. I’d never heard her name before. Since no stories about her disappearance turned up on my initial searches, I wondered how many other people also didn’t know her name or story. What happened to her?

In the 1950s, two women went missing from Grand Canyon South Rim, which became a second home to me after my mom moved me and my sister there as teenagers. It’s difficult to imagine anyone in this small, tight-knit community disappearing without a trace. Is there even anyone around now to tell their stories?

During a recent team meeting about the project, Tara Gatewood, the director of the IWMF Fund for Indigenous Journalists, asked me: How do you feel about what you’ve learned so far?

Gatewood is an award-winning experienced Indigenous journalist who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Isleta and Diné. Her question caught me off guard. Journalists aren’t typically asked how they feel about their work, nor does it become a topic of conversation during a regular work meeting. 

I realized at that moment I hadn’t given myself a chance to process my feelings. I had shoved it aside — like we’re often trained to do as reporters — and just kept working. But I felt sad for the Indigenous families who’ve gone far too long without answers. I felt a determination to move this project along in their honor. 

As you may be aware, things like jurisdictional issues and poor record keeping and sharing, among other barriers, have hindered data collection that would shed light on the lives of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Transgender People. No one fully understands the true impact for Indigenous communities, and limited or no details are known about the people at the center of this issue. 

I’m essentially starting this database from scratch — scouring news sites and social media posts and searching any publicly available government database for potential names. And while I’m proud to have gotten this far, I’m nowhere near done. 

As I search, it’s also starting to dawn on me just how much of this work will rely on word of mouth, especially since many of these stories have likely never been reported at all. I plan to be out in the community, talking and connecting with people. Most of all, listening. 

You can help, too. By sharing your and your family’s story. By connecting me with people I should talk with to learn more. By sharing this data and these stories as they publish. 

From time to time, I will write about how this work is going and what I’m learning. I invite you to please join me and Arizona Luminaria on this Indigenous-led local journalism journey supported by IWMF. 

Please reach out at: 602-492-1684, ccurtis@azluminaria.org, @curtis_chels on Twitter or www.facebook.com/chelsea.curtis.reports on Facebook. 

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T).

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Chelsea Curtis (Diné) is a reporter at Arizona Luminaria. She is based in Chandler and covers the crisis of Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit, and Transgender People in Arizona....