We hear you when you say you want more news stories that break down increasingly complex issues in our communities. So, Arizona Luminaria is thrilled to announce that Diné journalist Chelsea Curtis is joining our nonprofit news team to launch an Indigenous-led investigative and explanatory reporting project. These news stories and database are supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and its Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T), which is supported by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

Chelsea is a stellar reporter with a deep passion for local journalism that elevates the voices of Indigenous people, including those living in her own Navajo Nation. She will focus on the stories of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Transgender people. She will investigate injustices that lead to disproportionate rates of violence against Indigenous people and shed light on how communities across sovereign nations and urban regions are collaborating for change and accountability.

“My ultimate goal with this project is to provide an avenue for Indigenous communities to share their stories on their own terms. Having grown up on the Navajo Nation, I was aware of society’s general disregard for Native people and as I dove deeper into my journalism career it became even more apparent how much news lacked Indigenous representation,” Chelsea says. “I hope that by centering Indigenous voices, especially as it relates to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Transgender People injustice, more families can walk away with answers or assistance finding their loved ones.”

Our team is grateful for Chelsea’s thoughtful voice, journalism and leadership. We also are grateful for our valued partners at the IWMF for sharing a vision based on more ethical and equitable journalism solutions rooted in Indigenous-led in-depth reporting.

“Knowing that this project will give more depth to the MMIWG2T injustice is inspiring – it is essential to go beyond the surface to create true understanding within and outside of our communities. The IWMF is pleased to support Chelsea and Arizona Luminaria in examining the numbers and the impact this injustice has on Indigenous people as well as what contributes to the increasing numbers of those that are missing or who’ve been murdered,” said Tara Gatewood, IWMF Fund for Indigenous Journalists Reporting on MMIWG2T Director.

Arizona Luminaria is the state’s only nonprofit newsroom led and co-founded by women. Irene McKisson, Becky Pallack and Dianna Náñez have more than 50 years of combined experience in Arizona journalism. We’re putting that experience to work for you with community-centered journalism.

“As a nonprofit, our mission is to help communities in Arizona get the news and information they need to take action,” said Irene Fischler McKisson, principal executive and co-founder of Arizona Luminaria. “Chelsea’s project is critical in helping Native people and allies get the data, stories and context they need to understand this severely underreported issue, and to bring this injustice under public scrutiny for greater accountability.”

“We are honored to host this investigative project to keep news about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Transgender People in the mainstream,” said Becky Pallack, operations executive and co-founder of Arizona Luminaria.

Our team cannot do this work alone. Gracias for supporting and trusting us with your stories.

We invite you to join our mission to create more ethical and equitable news coverage and newsrooms for local journalists and our diverse communities. And please support Chelsea as she embarks on shaping this new project with ideas that hold us accountable to Indigenous Nations and families who’ve lost their loved ones.

In the coming months, you will hear from Chelsea as she reaches out to build community around her journalism project.

“Without support from the IWMF’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit and Transgender People, this project would likely not be possible. Not in the way I envisioned, at least, and definitely not with the amount of attention and dedication investigating this injustice requires from a reporter,” Chelsea says. “It’s the ultimate story of women supporting women, and I couldn’t be more honored to be welcomed into the IWMF’s network and associated with their long line of talented and courageous journalists around the globe.”

For many years, Indigenous Nations were either portrayed in news coverage through negative and stereotypical lenses or left out altogether.

“More newsrooms are finally starting to include Indigenous perspectives in their coverage and some have hired an Indigenous journalist or two to do this important work, but there’s still a long way to go,” Chelsea says.

Less than 1% of workers in U.S. newsrooms were Native American, according to a 2019 American Society of News Editors survey.

“Only a small number of Indigenous journalists are represented in corporate newsrooms across the country and even fewer are in leadership positions,” Chelsea says. “It’s vital to have Indigenous journalists not only involved but leading coverage of their own communities because they’ve likely lived many of the same experiences, which greatly increases the chance that these stories are told accurately, ethically and empathically.”

Changing systems requires power shifting and power sharing with people of color who are often underrepresented – especially in leadership positions – in U.S. newsrooms. One sign that we are on the right path stems from an early conversation with Gatewood, an award winning veteran Indigenous journalist who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Isleta and Diné.

Gatewood shared that to ensure these in-depth journalism projects are truly Indigenous-led, newsroom partners must agree to empowering Indigenous journalists to make final news decisions and be the overall guide on their project. “When this no harm approach happens more truth opens up,” she added.

In the typical U.S. newsroom, editors are overwhelmingly White and hold the power to shape most news coverage about communities of color. That truth matters because until local and national newsrooms have more Indigenous journalists shaping news decisions and news coverage about their own communities, we will continue to fall short of ethical journalism that is accurate and fully representative of Indigenous people.

As our team’s executive editor, I don’t want Arizona Luminaria to be part of the problem.

We are celebrating the opportunity to support Chelsea as the talented and courageous Indigenous journalist and leader that she is. She knows her Indigenous communities best. We will learn as she leads the way and centers her own news judgment to make final critical decisions for this project.

As part of her reporting at Arizona Luminaria, Chelsea is creating a publicly-accessible database that maps where MMIWG2T incidents occur and writing in-depth profiles to humanize the lives of Indigenous people who too often are erased amid news stories about the number of disappearances and deaths.

“There are no words to express how appreciative I am to Arizona Luminaria and the IWMF for taking a chance on me and this project, especially when women journalists and journalists of color are often told no or pushed out of the industry altogether,” Chelsea said.

“I went into my interview at Arizona Luminaria with an idea of what I wanted to cover and plenty of doubt I’d leave with a yes because that’s, unfortunately, the norm in journalism. I knew the women-led nonprofit aimed to create a newsroom that was against the norm but even I didn’t expect what was to come,” Chelsea says. “Dianna, Irene and Becky not only went above and beyond to connect me with the IWMF to make this project possible but also took it under their wing and offered support throughout its duration.”

We encourage you to please reach out and welcome Chelsea as she spends time reporting across the state and in Arizona’s 22 federally-recognized sovereign tribal nations.

Meet Chelsea, Arizona Luminaria’s new team member

Chelsea was raised on the Navajo Nation by her mom with help from her late grandparents in Sanders, Arizona. As a teenager, she moved with her mom and sister to Grand Canyon South Rim, which she says helped her develop a deeper connection with the land and an appreciation for outdoorsy lifestyles.

She received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northern Arizona University in 2015, around the same time she briefly reported for the Arizona Daily Sun. She eventually moved to Lake Havasu City and worked as a general assignment reporter at the Today’s News-Herald for about two years. At the same time, she reported for the News-Herald’s weekly affiliate, the Parker Pioneer, and quarterly magazine, Havasu — Arizona’s Coastal Life.

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, Chelsea was hired as a breaking news reporter at The Arizona Republic. She assisted with coverage of the state’s initial cases, business closures and protests, and for a short time helped cover some of the pandemic’s effects on Arizona’s Indigenous communities. That experience in particular left her with a lasting impression and desire to center Indigenous voices in her coverage moving forward.

In 2021, Chelsea was promoted to a criminal justice reporter. There, she closely tracked the state’s number of police shootings and covered the Department of Justice’s ongoing investigation into the Phoenix Police Department. She left The Republic last November to spend time with her family and pursue her longtime goal of covering Indigenous communities full-time.

Chelsea is now based in Chandler, Arizona. In her free time, she enjoys working out at the gym and playing volleyball with an indoor co-recreation league. She’s also a mom who enjoys camping, traveling and all the little things in between with her family. Reach out to her at: 602-492-1684, ccurtis@azluminaria.org@curtis_chels on Twitter and www.facebook.com/chelsea.curtis.reports on Facebook.