by Dagny Chika
Washington first appeared in Norine Hill’s consciousness in a dream. She was standing on a rocky cliff that she didn’t yet know was Cape Flattery, overlooking a large body of water that she didn’t yet know was the Pacific Ocean. Standing next to Norine was an Elder, who looked at the water, then looked back at Norine, and said, “You’re ready, you’re protected, you’re free to go”. Norine leaped off the cliff and into the ocean.
Norine Hill is a Native woman of the Oneida Nation of the Thames Tribe. She spent her early years in Detroit, Michigan, and moved with her family back to Ontario, Canada, at age ten. She chalks up her “street smarts” up to her Detroit upbringing – and in Ontario, she was raised within the Oneida tribe, surrounded by the ceremonies, medicine groups, and the traditional teachings and cultures of her Indigenous community.
Ontario is also where Norine became a survivor of houselessness and defender against domestic assault. In 2004, Norine’s relationship with the abusive father of her children was coming to an end. After months of unwanted contact and stalking, he broke into her house on Christmas Day, and Norine and her children were forced to physically defend themselves against him.
Shortly after the incident, the stalking stopped, but his energy lingered in Norine’s life. To cleanse herself of his hold, Norine immersed herself in traditional ceremony and protocols, deeply supported by her Clan Mothers. In Norine’s words, she “had the support of our traditional leadership to be able to get out of that situation. And then when I did, I thought ‘I just feel like I need to go somewhere’”.
Underwater, Norine felt herself grow fins and gills. She found herself breathing coolly and comfortably, swimming with power.
It was then through the guidance of tribal elders, Clan Mothers, energy workers, loved ones, and friends, that Norine’s dreams were realized in the Pacific Northwest. After struggling to get her feet under her when she first arrived in Washington in 2006, Norine was asked by Catholic Community Services to look at a nearby women’s shelter, which was run down and on the brink of closure. Norine was hesitant about social work at first – she had no direct experience with it before – but when she visited the shelter and met the Sisters, she immediately fell in love with the work and its potential. As a survivor of gender-based violence who had been a houseless teenager, Norine found that the mission and the programs resonated deeply with her, and she agreed to work with them.
After this introduction to the Washington nonprofit world, Norine soon had visions of incorporating Native healing practices into the programming. With the help of an Elder, Norine initiated a survivor-driven program called Spirit Journey House, which provided housing, healing, and relapse-prevention services to Indigenous women. According to Norine, Elders soon “started coming out of the woodwork when they heard the work that we were doing” to help run ceremonies, sweat lodges, and healing workshops. Because Norine was intent on listening to her community, asking them how they wanted to be supported, what started with “sweat lodges and talking circles in the backyard” eventually grew into Mother Nation, a nonprofit that serves Native women around Western Washington. Mother Nation offers cultural services, advocacy, mentorship, and homeless prevention services to celebrate and inspire the success of Native American women. Mother Nation’s culturally informed healing services are custom designed and provided by credentialed Native American Elders who apply culture to clinical practice.
As the founder and Executive Director of Mother Nation, Norine heads programs that include houselessness assistance, an individual mentorship program, a 12-week curriculum for sexual assault survivors, and much more. Mother Nation has been doing this work for ten years, and has expanded beyond Seattle to support Indigenous women located as far north as the Tulalip Tribe and Lummi Nation. The organization’s work is robust and prolific, but when Norine is asked about what she is most proud of, she brings it back to the individual level:
“I am most proud of the transformation of women who come to us for help, seeing them turn their lives around, seeing the determination they have, and how inspired they are to do it once they meet other women who have done it. The sisterhood is so beautiful.”
This past summer, Norine was awarded a three-month paid sabbatical by the BIPOC ED Coalition. She is using her sabbatical to travel back to her homeland and participate in six weeks of healing, which includes cleansing, body and trauma work to address the recent surfacing of burnout from work, grounding with ancestors, and traditional ceremonies.
Norine understands the importance of rest for her work at Mother Nation: “I have the best team I’ve ever had at Mother Nation, and we all support each other’s healing. Now it’s time to take care of myself so I can continue to do this work. I love this work, but I need to be healthy for what we have coming. By taking care of my spiritual health, I take care of reconnecting to the strength of my inner woman to continue growing as a leader in a time of challenge with a pandemic and chaos across the globe.”
Norine, like so many nonprofit Executive Directors, can only rarely afford to take needed rest . This is especially true for BIPOC leaders who, in Norine’s view, must work twice as hard as non-BIPOC folks to not only get the work done, but to constantly be “proving to non-Indigenous funders that we can take care of ourselves, that we can do this work”. With the BIPOC ED Coalition Sabbatical Award, Norine will finally take the time she needs to recuperate, rest, and reconnect with herself and her communities.
Norine looked around and saw other water-beings swimming around her. She thought to herself, “there is an entire world waiting for me”.