Underscore News + ICT

In 2023, Underscore News published more stories than ever before.

Reporters traveled across the Pacific Northwest and beyond: a weekend in Muckleshoot for Canoe Journey, a trip to Nevada camping out at Thacker Pass, a plane ride to Canada for the Indigenous Journalist Association annual conference, a week in a bus traveling down the Klamath River with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

These adventures and more led to some of our best work yet. Here’s a selection of our favorites.

Staff Picks

Last spring, Underscore reporter and photographer Jarrette Werk, a Report for America member, traveled to Nevada and camped out with Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribal elders and community members protesting the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine. “At Thacker Pass, Extraction and Resistance Come to a Head,” tells the story of the water and land defenders and their fight to protect sacred sites.

“When most people look out here they see nothing, because they don't know how to look,” said Bhie-Cie Zahn-Nahtzu. “People think Nevada is just open land that can be trashed, whether it be nuclear testing, or bombing ranges, or toxic waste storage and now open-pit mining.” While taking portraits on May 16, Zahn-Nahtzu, a Te-Moak Shoshone and Washoe multi-disciplinary artist based out of Hungry Valley, Nevada, stopped to look at the different medicines and plants like this Nevada Lupine that is found in Oregon, Nevada and California. “It seems ironic to me that I'm the trespasser because I want to see my ancestral land preserved,” Zahn-Nahtzu added. Photo by Jarrette Werk (Underscore News / Report for America)

In June, Underscore co-published a piece together with ICT and High Country News. Co-written by Nika Bartoo-Smith, a shared reporter with ICT, and Underscore Managing Editor Karina Brown “The Long Road to Access to Willamette Falls” tells the story of Willamette Falls. An important site for local tribes, the falls have been inaccessible to the public since industrialization. Five tribes are working to change that, alongside Willamette Falls Trust and Portland General Electric.

Over the course of four months, Karina and Nika followed a domestic violence case against former WNBA star and Umatilla tribal citizen Shoni Schimmel. In May, the pair detailed disproportionate sentences against tribal members who face criminal charges in federal courts. They followed that piece in August with coverage of Schimmel’s sentencing hearing.

At the end of July, the editorial team traveled to Muckleshoot to cover this year’s canoe journey, which had over 11,000 people in attendance. Underscore’s summer fellow Carrie Johnson profiled the North Tide Yaakw Ḵwáan canoe family and it’s trip from Alaska to Alki Beach.

This fall, Nika wrote two stories following a historic vote during the 80th annual conference of the National Congress of American Indians. If passed, the two constitutional amendments would have excluded tribes that aren’t federally recognized tribes from voting membership. Read “Organization of Tribes Created to Uphold Sovereignty Could Vote to Exclude Members” and “NCAI Vote to Exclude State Recognized Nations Fails” to learn more.

Another important read from November, “Barbie’s Village is Portland’s Latest Land Back Achievement,” written by Jarrette, ran as a front page story in The Oregonian – Jarrette’s third cover story for that publication. The story highlights the win of Future Generations Collaborative. After years of planning, a tiny home village for Native women and families was finally approved to be built at the former Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst. It also raised questions about why Multnomah County is not providing more funding for the project.

By the numbers

Our top read story of the year was “Two More Tribes Make Historic Co-Management Agreements With Oregon.” Co-written by Nika and Karina, the piece highlighted an agreement between the state and several tribes in Oregon. The agreement affirms the tribes’ right to issue hunting and fishing licenses to their members. It also exposed deep disagreements among tribes about fishing at Willamette Falls and raised questions about the state’s ability to navigate such disputes.

Cheryle A. Kennedy, Chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, appeared at a June 16 meeting of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, one day after ODFW Director Curt Melcher removed the proposed Memorandum of Agreement between ODFW and Grand Ronde from the agenda. At the meeting, Kennedy expressed her disappointment that the MOA was pulled from the agenda. She also spoke in support of the MOAs between ODFW and the two other tribes there that day, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith / Underscore News & ICT)

Two months later, reporters traveled down to Salem — state wildlife managers approved a co-management agreement with Grand Ronde, despite overwhelming opposition from other tribes including Warm Springs, Umatilla, Yakama and Nez Perce. The agreement could spark federal litigation.

Underscore’s second most read story of the year, “Portland Art Museum Changes Policy After Karuk Mother Speaks Out,” was written by Jarrette. The accountability piece explored how a young mother helped change a problematic policy at the art museum.

Sophie Weinstein finished her first ever baby basket days before her son was born, under the guidance of her teachers Verna Reece and Lisa Hillman, and with the support and encouragement of her husband, Chris Weinstein. (Photo courtesy of Sophie Weinstein)

Published on the first of the year, the third most visited story in 2023 was “Experts Say Lawsuits Pose Greatest Threat to Tribes in Decades” by Karina. The piece examined two lawsuits, a betting case and an adoption case, exposing a coordinated legal campaign that could have threatened tribal sovereignty. Republished in major newspapers from Alaska to Alabama to New Jersey, the story was cited by the Washington state attorney general in an announcement that one of the lawsuits was being dismissed.

The fourth most read story of the year, “Native Solidarity with Indigenous Palestinians Helps Delay U.S. Warships,” was the first piece for Underscore by Luna Reyna, northwest bureau chief and shared reporter with ICT. The article highlights Indigenous protestors calling for an immediate ceasefire in Palestine. The protests, held at the Port of Tacoma in early November, included Coast Salish water warriors riding up to help block the cargo ship in their canoes.

Earlier this month, Luna wrote a follow-up story: “Indigenous Water Warriors Call for Global Solidarity Against Genocide.”

Indigenous Water Warriors in a traditional Nisqually canoe attempting to block cargo ship MV Cape Orlando, believed to be headed for Israel with weapons for the ongoing bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza, from leaving the harbor. (Courtesy of Coast Salish Water Warriors.)

In October, Nika wrote a story about a group of Native students from Siletz who were berated by their non-Indigenous principal after staging a walkout, protesting that the school — serving majority Indigenous students — required students to be in classes on Indigenous People’s Day.

School Principal Investigated After Seventh Complaint” is the fifth most visited story of the year, with nearly 1,500 visits. Multiple publishing partners also ran the story, including The Oregonian, OPB and Siletz News. Nika was also invited to speak about the story on an episode of OPB’s Morning Edition.

That story traced how the Siletz Valley School Board didn’t investigate seven complaints against the principal by students, families and teachers. After Underscore covered the walk out, the board launched an investigation and placed the principal on administrative leave. On Dec. 14, it announced her termination.

Widely redistributed

Throughout the year, Underscore stories were picked up by other publications across the country — with nearly every piece published by ICT.

The Oregonian and OPB ran many Underscore stories throughout the year.

OPB hosted reporters on air to talk about three different stories: in July during Canoe Journey, in August to discuss a state agreement with Grand Ronde and again in October to talk about the investigation of a school principal in Siletz, Oregon.

In September, The Oregonian partnered with Jarrette, sending their photographer to accompany him as he reported a Sunday cover story about the Native American Youth and Family Center’s powwow.

In November, The North Coast Journal featured a story co-written by Jarrette and Nika. “California Gold Rush Outpost Now in Native Hands” ran as the cover for the coastal magazine. The story took the two reporters on a journey to Northern California to spend a day with the O’Rourke family and learn what the Indigenous couple’s purchase of the only grocery store for miles means for their community.

Joe and Elly O’Rourke and their two youngest sons Morek and Sihára pose for their portrait in front of their new store, The Salmon River Outpost, which has been a staple in the rural community of Somes Bar, Cali. for generations. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)

Throughout the year, tribal papers from across the country ran stories by Underscore.

In February, Buffalo’s Fire republished “The Future’s Past: Artists in Conversation,” a piece by Jarrette showcasing Indigenous artists.

Artist Oscar Howe’s response to curator Jeanne Snodgrass, who rejected his submission to the 1958 Philbrook Indian Annual art competition by saying his submission was a “fine painting — but not Indian.” His fiery response helped shape the way we look at contemporary Indigenous art. Photo by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News and Report For America

In May, Red Lake Nation News republished “How Indigenous Nations Are Rebuilding Food Systems.” Part of a seven-part special series highlighting food sovereignty, the piece was written by freelancer Richard Arlin Walker.

Co-managed by Nicole Charley and Jackleen de La Harpe for Underscore, the series made up the content of the March 2023 issue of The Other Oregon as part of a collaboration.

As 2023 comes to a close, Underscore is already preparing for another year of impactful stories. We’re grateful for your support.

Lead photo: Skaydu Û Jules, Eagle/Killer Whale Clan of Teslin Tlingit people in southern Yukon, Alaska introduced her canoe family in Tlingit during protocol at the annual Canoe Journey hosted by the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe. Canoe families from across the Salish Sea, and even across the world, traveled to Muckleshoot, including families from New Zealand, Japan and Hawaii. Jules and her canoe family, which was made up of mostly women, traveled 1,500 miles to be there for this moment. “Being on the water, it felt like I was lifted up by our ancestors,” she said. Photo by Jarrette Werk (Underscore News / Report for America)

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