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This profile is one of a series on the contributions, cultural knowledge and strength of Native peoples in celebration of Washington state’s Indigenous peoples year-round.

Natasha Brennan
McClatchy Northwest
nbrennan@mcclatchy.com

Raynell Morris, an enrolled Lummi Tribal citizen, is known for her activism as vice president of the Sacred Lands Conservancy. She advocated against the coal port at Cherry Point and to bring home southern resident orca Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut from the Miami Seaquarium.

In her neighborhood, she’s the watchful matriarch and to her beloved grandchildren, she’s a dance party host and “Grandma Sparkles.” It’s little-known that Squil-le-he-le (her traditional name) was the first Native staffer appointed to the White House.

Morris’ long journey to serve with President Bill Clinton started at Bellingham High School, where she was the first Native cheerleader — a first of many firsts. She took on an internship at the National Bank of Commerce in Bellingham.

She was born in May 1956 and raised as the middle of five siblings in a Catholic home on the Lummi Reservation in Whatcom County.

From a young age, she learned about tribal sovereignty, with both of her parents, Raphael and Ramona, active members of the community who served on tribal council. Her family, including her elder sister, participated in the early days of the tribal self-governance movement, the battle with the IRS to ensure fishing income was non-taxable, the establishment of the first Lummi Nation school and Tribal gaming.

Her parents worked to give each of their children two traditional names — one to honor their Yakama heritage and one their Lummi heritage. Morris’ Yakama name is Commusni and her Lummi name is Squil-le-he-le.

Time with family

As a child, she was very close with her maternal grandparents, who lived in the Lummi river village. She’d often spend weekends with them, her grandfather providing as a fish buyer and otter and mink fur trader.

“(My grandmother) was always very proper. Her house was spotless, she was a good homemaker. That part of grandma shines through and I’m told that I resemble that,” Morris said, with every hair in place and her nail polish matching her necklace and earrings — made by her sister, Raydean Finkbonner.

On her father’s side, her paternal grandmother was chief of the Lakahahmen Band in Mission, British Columbia. Her father and uncles came to Lummi as teenagers.

“We have that kind of cross-border lineage,” she said. “And my brother has our family tree that goes back nine generations.”

After graduating from Bellingham High School in 1974, she married her high school sweetheart. The pair were both from low-income families, she said, and prioritized traveling before settling down to have their son seven years later.

“I wanted a large family, but Creator had a different idea,” Morris said. “I found out I had cervical cancer when I was pregnant.”

She had nine failed procedures to remove the cancer cells. After delivering, she took six weeks to heal before a full hysterectomy.

“He was the only one I could have. It was really hard. I was just so grateful for him,” she said, her voice shaking.

Her son Kyle was her miracle baby in many ways — the only child she could have, but also the one who saved her life. She was 25 years old and with no symptoms. Had she not been pregnant, the cancer would likely not been found early enough, she reflected.

“What if we waited for one more big trip? One more big vacation? I wouldn’t have a choice,” she said.

Lummi Tribal citizens Ellie Kinley, left, and Raynell Morris, president and vice president of the non-profit Sacred Lands Conservancy known as Sacred Sea, lead a prayer for the repatriation of southern resident orca Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut — who has lived and performed at the Miami Seaquarium for over 50 years — to her home waters of the Salish Sea at a gathering Sunday, March 20, 2022, at the sacred site of Cherry Point in Whatcom County, Wash. (Photo by The Bellingham Herald)

Banking, finance expertise

By the time her son was 14, Morris and her first husband had separated and she was steadily climbing up the ranks at the bank, which changed hands and names multiple times over the years. She’d worked as a branch manager, loan officer and took all the American Institute of Banking courses. She ended her tenure as vice president of Security Pacific Bank before its divestment to Bank of America.

In 1996, she was hired by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians to form their Economic Development Corporation in Lynnwood. She helped to establish a revolving $5 million loan fund and increase access to credit and lending to Native-owned businesses.

She’d been there a short while before attending a conference with the economic development director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the keynote speaker.

“She was visiting with a couple of (Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians) board members and said, ‘Keep your eye out. We’re looking for a Native with banking finance experience if you know anybody.’ And they all looked at each other and said, ‘We just hired her’.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians worked out a deal — they’d share her. Beginning in March of 1997, she had two-week rotations, working in Lynwood for the Tribes and in D.C. for the Department of the Interior as an expert consultant for the Office of Economic Development.

“I did it for five months and was about to crack,” Morris said.

By September, she had an offer to stay in D.C. to work as the associate director of Intergovernmental Affairs for President Clinton. As the first Native American appointed to the White House, she aided in coordinating briefings between 26 agencies, grant announcements and developing Native policies and outreach with federally recognized Tribes.

In 1999, she was facilitating a trip for the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Lynne Cutler to speak at the National Congress of American Indians conference in South Carolina.

“My job was to get tribal leaders in front of her to talk about their issues. That’s where I met my husband,” she said.

By October, she left D.C. to join her husband in Albuquerque, where she took on positions at Tiller Research to develop the economic reference “Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country,” advocated for low-income and minority groups at Project Change Fair Lending Center and served as the executive director of the Native American Lending Group.

As a lobbyist, she helped to enact the first and strongest state anti-predatory mortgage lending law in the nation – one of her proudest accomplishments.

Moving home, battling cancer

In May 2007, by then separated, Morris chose to move home to Bellingham when her father needed brain surgery. She worked for the Lummi Commercial Company as the general manager, responsible for operations at the Lummi Mini Mart, Fisherman’s Cove and Dock, Lummi Tobacco Company and the Silver Reef Casino.

“I pulled over and interviewed on the road — I had my little white Bichon buddy, driving my U-haul, towing my Lexus — on Wednesday. I got home to Lummi Friday night. I was at the hospital that next morning with my father and started work for the Lummi Commercial Company board on Wednesday,” she said.

While working as the general manager, Morris learned her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Me and my sisters were with her in the operating waiting room. The surgeon came in to talk to her and said, ‘Ramona, is there anything else we need to know before we begin?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ She points at all of us girls. ‘I want them all to get their mammograms before I go in. Especially this one.’ She points at me,’” Morris said.

“My mom was having surgery in December. I got my test results in January. I had breast cancer. I wouldn’t have gone if she didn’t make me,” she said.

She had a double mastectomy and had to leave the position as general manager.

“I needed to heal. I needed to recover. We were going from my dad having brain surgery, a couple years later my mom having breast cancer, then me having breast cancer. A double mastectomy is a really big recovery. So almost for a full year I was dealing with my health,” she said.

Years later, Morris’ sister Raydean Finkbonner accompanied her to Chameleon Ink in Bellingham where tattoo artist Shelly James covered the scars left by her double mastectomy and an unsuccessful bilateral transplant reconstruction.

“Breast cancer is just barbaric. The healing is very, very painful. And reconstruction didn’t go well. All my lady parts had been removed by surgery. It was really hard to feel feminine. I couldn’t look at myself. And that’s when I figured maybe if I did really pretty, colorful tattoos, it’ll make me feel more like a woman again. So when I don’t have my clothes on and I see myself in a mirror, I don’t see the scars. I see the art,” she said.

The design is two hummingbirds, each holding an end of a pink ribbon.

“When we’re recovering, the hummingbirds come into our spirit,” Morris said.

The design was created with input from her sister.

“She’s been through a lot of medical issues, so she has dealt with a lot of that and I’ve helped her through some if it, but she’s always taken it on by herself. She’s highly independent. She confronts everything head-on,” Finkbonner said

Service to Tribe

Morris became senior policy advisor for the Lummi Indian Business Council’s Office of the Treasurer in January 2011.

“The first time I had worn real clothes again was when I went in to report to her,” she said.

She moved on to be the chief of staff and policy analyst for the chairman that May.

(Related: Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut's right to return)

By May 2013, she continued her work in the chairman’s office as the Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office director and worked on the Salish Sea Campaign to Fulfill Our Xa Xalh Xechnging (sacred obligation in Xwlemi Chosen) to defeat the proposed coal port at Cherry Point.

“We developed strategies to inform counsel, strategies to inform community, Tribal and non-Tribal. We defeated that project and our treaty rights were upheld. That was probably our biggest feather in our cap,” she said.

When the Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office closed in March 2020, Morris channeled her passion for saving the Salish Sea as vice president of the nonprofit Sacred Lands Conservancy, known as Sacred Sea.

While in her position at the Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, she had become aware of a southern resident orca that had been captured in 1970 and taken to Miami to perform. The story of Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut (pronounced SKAH-lee-CHUKH-tah-NOT) — known by her stage name of Lolita and as Tokitae by others — as she was later renamed by the Tribe, resonated with her.

“When I watched the video and learned that it was a commercial, couple-a-hundred dollar permit from the state of Washington, that they didn’t have our consent to do that, and that she’s still there — that was compelling. I’m a mom and a grandma,” she said. “I went and sat with (late hereditary chief Bill Tsi’li’xw James) and talked to him about it,” she said.

James, her spiritual guide, told her that orca are called “qw’e lh’ol’ me chen,” meaning “our relations who live under the water.”

“That was it,” she said. “I knew we had to bring her home.”

Now, she leads community prayers and prayers of her own at Cherry Point. She wants to continue to bring her grandchildren Kinsley, 9, Landon, 3, Soren, 2 and Isabel, 5.

“I bring them to Cherry Point and tell the about the ancient ones who still walk here,” she said. “We’re advocating for their future. For them to be able to know our ways.”

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Natasha Brennan covers Indigenous Affairs for Northwest McClatchy Newspapers. She’s a member of the Report for America corps.