Represent: Urban Indigenous Collective

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URBAN NATIVE (/ˈƏRBƏN ˈNĀDIV\): UIC defines Urban Native as an Indigenous person of the North, Central, and South Americas, Caribbean and Pacific Islands who is living in an urban area.

With a mission to provide accessible pathways to healthcare and services to the tri-state area’s Indigenous population, Urban Indigenous Collective (UIC) has made strides in promoting equity and community-based research. In three years since its inception, UIC has provided healthcare and culturally-specific COVID resources, earned the trust of the community, and prepared to move into a physical clinic space in 2022. They’ve also assembled a task force to facilitate a database of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Transgender, and Two-Spirit people (MMIWGT2S NYC+), bringing awareness to federal and local neglect on the issue.


Immediately after the Start Today program established in early 2021, we were approached by a member of the Urban Indigenous Collective to discuss a potential partnership. We spent months brainstorming how best to get involved and advance their imperative work, ultimately including it in our Represent mural series in autumn of 2021. We were honored to partner with the UIC to create a mural designed to highlight the MMIWGT2S NYC+ project and amplify the impact and presence of the UIC. This is our first ever mural for which Colossal employees across all departments participated in production, a response to overwhelming support and desire to volunteer from our team.


As the project began on the wall, we had the opportunity to speak with Ariel Richer (CEO, Co-Founder) and Sutton King, MPH (Co-founder, President, & Chairperson) about their mission with the organization, the social-political context for this work, and their hopes for the future.

How did the UIC begin, and how has it changed over time? 

Sutton King: I’ve always wanted to establish a nonprofit; it’s been a dream of mine since I was a little girl. We decided that the Urban Indigenous Collective needed to come into fruition when I was the Director of the Urban Indian Health Program for the New York Indian Council and Jared Packard, one of our co-founders, was the Case Manager. We realized there are so many barriers that exist for programming that solely relies on federal funding. And when you rely on federal funding that comes from Indian Health Service for example, you have to adhere to the federal definition of what it means to be an urban Indian — which is not inclusive and perpetuates a lot of colonial tactics that relate to blood quantum, and doesn’t account for other Indigenous relatives that we see as community. 

Indigenous communities in the Western Hemisphere who live in large metropolitan areas like New York City need more inclusive health services. Because of this, it was almost serendipitous that Ariel and I were introduced by our advisors.


Ariel Richer: I have a long history working in partner violence, substance use interventions, and with Black and Indigenous communities. This is the focus of my work at Columbia University School of Social work. I am currently a fourth-year doctoral candidate. My first semester, my advisor introduced me to Sutton, and within five months, UIC came to fruition. We were welcomed very openly by the Native community here in New York City; our first official community-facing event was Indigenous Peoples Day, 2019. That was such a confirming day. We conducted a community health needs assessment, people sat down, they wanted to speak to us, they wanted to tell us what was happening, and what their hopes and dreams for a community center and an urban Indian health program were. We’ve been going with that ever since.

What are you most proud of having accomplished as an organization so far?

SK: That’s a difficult question. I’m most proud of the community that we’ve built, and the way that we’ve used our own truth as good medicine to build programming. When you look at the  programming we offer, it doesn’t just come from textbook expertise, it comes from real life experience. For example,  with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Transgender, Two-Spirit (MMIWGT2S NYC+) database, we’re all survivors on this team and we really center survivors and our experience. To be able to highlight the scope of violence that our community endures and experiences, and bring attention to this, as a survivor, as a family member of MMIP [missing and murdered Indigenous people], that’s something that I’m most proud of.


AR: First and foremost, community. I think the second part that I’m really proud of is our Indigenous Scholars Mentorship Program. Sutton and I were talking and realized that we both moved to New York City pretty young — she was 18, I was 22. New York throws so many things at you that it is hard for anybody — and on top of that, being Indigenous, being a woman, having other intersectionalities makes it more difficult to feel a sense of belonging in the broaderNew York City community here. 

We welcomed a cohort of four Indigenous women to our organization this fall; we support them with a paid internship that benefits their own community, also thinking about other types of support like making sure there are no barriers in terms of technology, and very tangible things like food. We wanted to provide a safe container where you can grow and explore and push boundaries and understand and make your own path. Each of them designs their own projects within the scope of the work that we do, so they’re part of everything that we do. 


SK: When we think about MMIP, a lot of folks look at just the data when we go missing when we are murdered. It’s so important to think about what type of safety nets we can put in place before we become a statistic, right? I really see this mentorship program representing that right — to be able to provide that safe space, provide mentorship, make sure that they know that they have kinship in their community.

With your focus on providing accessibility for mental and physical health services, how did the UIC efforts or strategy change in 2020 with COVID-19 disproportionately impacting BIPOC communities?

AR: We want to provide services within our community, but it does really start with our team. If we aren’t building our team this way that supports mental and physical health, we’re never going to be able to provide services outside to our community. We have to start from a place where we have abundance. So that’s another thing that I’m really proud of. I’m proud of everything. 

We applied for a small racial justice grant through Columbia School of Social Work in the spring. We had a multi-week social media campaign that focused on providing culturally-tailored information about COVID vaccine, but that also acknowledged histories of violence because of the medical system and how research has been done in the past. So very much acknowledging that there was hesitancy for a reason and it was extremely valid, while also offering a variety of ways to engage with material. We had fireside chats that focused on people who are well respected within our communities from a variety of backgrounds. We also were able to send out 40 care packages that included traditional medicines, PPE, and other mental health resources. Through that and our surveys, we found out that our communities see us as a trusted source of information.


SK: To be able to identify ourselves as a trusted organization within New York City gave us a lot of confidence in what we’re doing and how we were fostering trust. I think just being able to show up in that way with the little resources that we did have at that time planted the seeds for us to come into the community with a physical location at the top of 2022, which has always been the dream. But we know that we move as fast as trust grows.

Can you talk about the history of the MMIWGT2S NYC+ project? 

AR: I reached out to Annita Lucchesi, Executive Director of Sovereign Bodies Institute, in summer of 2018, right before I started at Columbia in their PhD program. Working in partner violence and sexual assault, and then working for the Ministry for Native Americans, I saw so many gaps in research. All the data we have is just because of our communities, in spite of the lack of law enforcement involvement, and dedication to this issue. I think it’s really important to name why there’s a lack of data — we have to be very pointed. Anita really supported me, and then when I was introduced to Sutton, the three of us were able to converge. She developed the proposal around this database that we were able to submit to the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, and we were thankfully funded. That’s how the first year of the project started: developing a task force who are survivors and family members of people affected by MMIP, and then starting off with Freedom of Information Act requests within the New York City tri-state area to understand what was out there already. And then building greater awareness. 

In any community-based work, you need to have people from the community involved and they need to have a meaningful voice and seat at the table. That means authority to say yes or no to something. We’re going to move at their speed, which means things take significantly longer. But that makes me question: why were things moving so fast in the first place? If people aren’t invested, it’s never going to work. 

We submitted 103 Freedom of Information Act requests to law enforcement agencies to get a baseline of the information local agencies currently have; by and large, we weren’t getting responses from agencies. They weren’t tracking race or gender. We’ve developed an MMIP policy tracker to monitor all 50 states and evaluate legislations introduced to address MMIP. Many things can be improved, but there are some exciting policies out there — and I never thought I would get this excited about policy.

What is the state of the database now? What are your plans for it?

SK: Right now, it’s really to build out the task force, make sure this is community centered, and to take the policy tracker to the next level. But again, we’re moving at the speed of trust and these are very sensitive conversations and topics. We’re willing to move as slowly as that takes.


AR: We’re trying to repair and heal and restore. I hate the myth of the strong person of color. We deserve to have our time to mourn and to be able to be soft and feel things. 

Can you tell us a bit about the artwork, and how it visually represents the MMIWGT2S NYC+ project?

SK: The artwork represents the Indigenous body: it’s here on one side and the Indigenous body that’s here in spirit. And capturing that skyline of New York City to bring attention to these urban spaces where we are going missing and are murdered. I think Eloy Bida did a beautiful job. I’m really thankful to have him a part of this in a big way because having the visualization to this really supports the messaging. 


AR: It was important that we commissioned and compensated someone who is Indigenous because we wanted to invest back into our own community. He more than delivered — his work is beautiful. 

[We’re] proudly saying we are here, we deserve to be looked at, and pay attention, because we have and always have had something to say.

Ariel Richer

What effect do you hope this mural will have, whether on data collection, donation, awareness, or otherwise?

AR: First and foremost, this is for our community. I am excited that they’ll be able to look up and see a representation of themselves. It’s a remembrance that we’re not forgotten. I think often things can take the form of trauma porn, or portray that we are a past — that we are something that is a history and not modernity, or something in the future. Even with the skyline, New York City residents and visitors have Native people to thank for a lot of the steel work. 

Then we’re hoping that the mural is going to increase overall awareness, and that we’re going to have a space — and we deserve to take up space. Proudly saying we are here, we deserve to be looked at, and pay attention, because we have and always have had something to say. Now we are in a space where our voice can be heard, because it is so predominant. 

I’m hoping that people will engage, understand, take pictures, share, Google, do work on their own — there’s so much free information out there. We’re not the only voices, and we were not the first voices to be working on this. Communities and relatives who are searching for their missing and murdered relatives have started this work — we’re just amplifying it in a different way. I’m hoping that this will grow beyond a conversation, that people will feel comfortable being able to advocate as well and reach out to their lawmakers. It’s not just an indigenous issue, it’s an everybody issue. 

What is the most impactful action non-Indigenous people can take to support UIC and the Indigenous community?

AR: Donation is going to be the most prominent one, because we’re largely volunteer led.  I call it heart work (I didn’t actually coin that word, though). That’s what keeps us going.

Please visit the Urban Indigenous Collective website to make a donation or to learn more, and follow @urbanindigenouscollective on Instagram for updates.

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