Board Profile: Michael E. Roberts & Creating the “And”

Michael E. Roberts

Michael E. Roberts, President, CEO and Board Member of First Nations Development Institute

If you know Mike Roberts, you’ve probably heard him talk about the “and” – how a Native American can be Indian and something else. “Being Indian defines you,” he asserts, “but it’s not the only thing that defines you.”

In his role as President, CEO and Board Member of First Nations Development Institute, Mike calls on this simple part of speech regularly, using it as a guide to empower people and communities. He shares the power of “and” in his own life and in First Nations’ investments in Indian Country.

Redefining Bravery

Mike’s drive to be Indian and something more took root in southeast Alaska, where he witnessed a form of bravery he didn’t recognize was brave at the time.

Mike was born and raised in Ketchikan, but his Tlingit family was originally from Klawock. His grandfather was a product of one of the early Indian boarding schools, and at 11 years old he had the responsibility of guiding his eight-year-old sister to Chemawa Indian School in Oregon. The journey involved a trip, first by fishing vessel to Ketchikan, then via steamship to Seattle and then across Seattle’s waterfront from the steamship docks to the train station, where they would catch a train to Oregon. This was a long trek through an unfamiliar town, all so the U.S. government could institute an elimination of Indians by taking their kids away from their households, and stripping them of their languages and cultures. The story repeated itself for Mike’s father, only this time the boarding school was at Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka, Alaska.

When his father was a sophomore in high school, Mike’s grandparents decided this school solution was no longer ideal for their children’s future, and the family decided to uproot their lives and move away from their traditional Tlingit village.

Mike gives acceptance remarks upon receiving the "Asset Builder Champion" award from the Center for Global Policy Solutions in April 2016.

Mike gives acceptance remarks upon receiving the “Asset Builder Champion” award from the Center for Global Policy Solutions in April 2016.

Mike says his grandparents’ willingness to leave everything they’d ever known for the benefit of someone else is indicative of the kind of people they were.

In Ketchikan, Mike’s father was able to go to the local high school, but it wasn’t without cost. Approaching the end of his senior year, Mike’s dad was on a path to become valedictorian when he received an arbitrary B. While there was a large Indian population in Ketchikan, the Indians lived on the “Indian side,” south of Ketchikan Creek, and it quickly became clear that he was not to be Indian and Valedictorian.

It was indeed a segregated community, but it was still something Mike didn’t fully recognize until middle school and high school. Before then, he attended the local elementary school, which unbeknownst to him was the “Indian School.” “But there are benefits to growing up like that,” he says.

He delivered papers to the neighborhoods where the Native Americans and other minorities such as Filipinos, who were tradesmen and business owners, lived. “In some ways it was idyllic. It was an aspiring Indian and middle-class community,” he says.

Ultimately, however, the reality of being Indian in Ketchikan became painfully obvious once all grades led to the one high school in town. “Being poor and Indian means you showed up for your first day of class in the predominantly white school, already with two strikes against you,” he says. “It was clear that no matter how well you did, there was little likelihood that you could be Indian and become part of the powerbase in the community.”

Still, growing up in this community south of Ketchikan Creek gave him the strength to go when it was “apparent he had to leave.” And he owes this to the bravery of his grandfather and father.

Mike with Jona Charette, First Nations Development Officer, at the "taco truck" during a staff meeting in 2017.

Mike with Jona Charette, First Nations Development Officer, at the “taco truck” during a staff meeting in 2017.

“There was discrimination and racism, but the cost of pushing back could have meant a loss of livelihood,” he says. “But they made sacrifices so I could have that community, I could go to school, and I could have choices. That’s a bravery that I probably didn’t fully give them credit for until later in life.”

Venturing Out

Mike left Ketchikan for the College of Idaho, a small liberal arts school just west of Boise. Here he hoped to reinvent himself in a community where he was not defined by his family, his ethnicity or his impoverishment. He was a math and science major. But then, wanting to pursue a career in architecture, he transferred to the University of Colorado for its architecture program. From Colorado, he set his sights on a master’s degree, eventually enrolling at the University of Washington.

But once there, he found himself more drawn to the business aspects of architecture – project management and project financing, and he soon transferred to the MBA program. After graduating, he looked to move back to Denver with his wife whom he had met while at the University of Colorado.

Still, he balanced his Indian heritage with an identity he was still defining. He cites Jess Walter, who wrote that people only have two or three opportunities in their lives to reinvent themselves. Despite his desires to do this, he typically found himself in the very familiar environment of being one of the few Indians in his environment. But now he was a Native American and a professional with a business degree. If there had been a desire to reinvent himself as something else, he was learning he didn’t need to.

Coming to First Nations

Mike during his first week with First Nations in 1992.

Mike during his first week with First Nations in 1992.

It was then that Mike was in Seattle, but scouring the classified section of The Denver Post, when he came across a job advertisement for First Nations Development Institute. The organization, then located in Virginia, was focused on economic development of Native communities.

Mike, who had never been east of the Mississippi, took the interview mainly to see the nation’s capital, assuring his wife that there was no way he would move them to Virginia. But during the interview he realized how drawn he was to what First Nations was working to accomplish, and they had no one on staff with his finance and accounting skills. That left only the tough job of convincing his wife to relocate to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he accepted the position as a research officer. Six months into the job, the then-COO left First Nations, and Mike stepped in on an interim basis.

Mike digging in at First Nations in 1992.

Mike digging into “business and numbers” in 1992.

Ultimately becoming the COO in 1995, Mike established himself as the “numbers and business” guy. He used his MBA knowledge to assess projects and analyze where they would have the most impact. He worked directly with Rebecca Adamson and Sherry Black, intrigued by their vision and key to the organization’s goal. In the early part of First Nations’ attempt to become a grantmaking organization, it aimed to reach a threshold of financing before awarding any grants. This longer-than-expected fundraising goal tested Mike’s skill in budgeting and operations early. He now laughs about how he was asked to make First Nations survive for a year-and-a-half on a 12-month budget.

But after five years, Mike reached a crossroads, and he needed to see what else might be out there. He left First Nations on good terms, and with a promise that he would remain on the board, he accepted a position in the Kaufman Foundation Fellows project, a two-year, mastery-level program in venture capitalism.

Now a Native American and a venture capitalist, Mike went on to work first for a regional venture capital firm, Kansas City Equity Partners, and eventually for Meritage Private Equity, helping the firm that would end up leveraging close to a billion dollars in managed capital and investing in large telecommunications companies.

Combining Worlds

Mike spent five years in venture capital. He honed a discipline in evaluating companies, their core competencies and their distinct advantages. And he learned how successful companies were the ones who were changing and adopting.

Mike with Harley Coriz at Santo Domingo Pueblo in 2013.

Mike with Harley Coriz at Santo Domingo Pueblo in 2013.

Ultimately, however, he realized that the value system of venture capitalism and his own didn’t necessarily align. As he and his fellow venture capitalists debated over deals with the potential of investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, he continued to be drawn by the optimism of the social entrepreneurs who were approaching First Nations promising to change the world for five or 10 thousand dollars. “They believed that they could positively impact their communities with that modest financing,” he says. “And I realized that it was that change and their world that I wanted to be part of.”

In what he says was a very deliberate decision, Mike returned to First Nations as the CEO and president in 2002, taking over for First Nations’ founder Rebecca Adamson in 2003. On condition of his return, the organization was moved to Colorado and Mike retained his seat on the board. Mike was now able to draw from his for-profit experience in setting the fiscal direction of First Nations.

“I took to heart the venture capitalist idea of ‘innovate or die,’” he says. “I knew what well-conceptualized and well-run companies looked like and I was able to apply that knowledge in evaluating projects and programs. I could see what could have the most impact in Indian Country.”

The venture capitalist experience also gave him a new perspective on philanthropy. “Having sat on the other side of the table when people were asking for money, it made it easier to be the one asking. I knew how to present something fresh and new in the eyes of funders,” he says.

Indian and So Much More

Mike with his wife, Jen, and their two daughters.

Mike with his wife, Jen, and their two daughters.

Now Mike considers First Nations with pride. He says he came back to create an organization that was best in world first, best in nonprofit second, and the best Indian nonprofit in the world third. But beyond any balance sheet or income statement, the success of First Nations comes from looking out on Indian Country and seeing the progress.

Mike makes the somewhat tongue-in-cheek statement, “At First Nations, we make early-stage, high-risk investments in Indian communities.” In actuality, he says, the perception of high-risk belongs to the private foundation community, which perpetually underinvests in Indian projects.

“But for First Nations, there is little perceived risk, as we know that we are investing in the genius of Indian people. And the power of somebody investing in you can be transformational.”

Mike has come far from the small town of Ketchikan where he says one’s “Indian-ness” was not necessarily something you were conditioned to be proud of. But it was and continues to be part of his identity that he doesn’t need to reinvent. And this was evidenced when he was “given away” in a ceremonial hand-off from his Tlingit tribe to the reins of First Nations.

He values the bravery, opportunity and sense of community instilled in him by his family and his hometown, and the “and” continues to be part of his journey and his role at First Nations. He is Indian and a leader in advancing the Indian community. He can practice Indian values and employ principals of capitalism to increase ROI.

“And at First Nations we can invest in Native communities and in innovative practices that are true to the Indian ways of responsibility and respect,” he says. “When we stop doing that, we should probably shut First Nations’ doors.”

By Amy Jakober

Social Value, Greater Healing: Art for the Upper Sioux

The community art room, with classes held every week, provides a safe space for socializing and creativity.

The community art room, with classes held every week, provides a safe space for socializing and creativity.

When the Upper Sioux Community in Granite Falls, Minnesota, sought funding from First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) through the Native Arts Initiative, its goal was clear: increase access, awareness and inter-generational transfer of Dakota arts. Throughout its year-long arts project, the organization met its objective. And in doing so, it showed how the arts can unite people, strengthen community and foster healing.

A Return to the Old Ways

The mission of the Upper Sioux Community is to provide culturally-based programs and services that preserve Dakota traditions and promote education, healthy families, increased self-esteem and self-sufficiency of the Pezihutazizi Oyate. Complementing this mission is a vision to ensure that Dakota arts are easily accessible and appreciated throughout the community and region.

Since its founding, the Upper Sioux Community has sponsored Dakota arts in education, hosting after-school and summer youth programs for beading, hide painting, hoop dancing and other arts. It has also helped coordinate master apprenticeships, in which elder artists work directly with students to teach techniques hands on.

For Autumn Cavender, the Dakota Arts Program Coordinator at Upper Sioux Community, the role of the organization has always been to expand the idea of art and uphold it the way it used to be: practical, social and valued.

According to Cavender, traditional Dakota art served a purpose. “You made beautiful the things that you used,” she said. Art was not something to create and put on a shelf. Rather, art was a reflection of the energy and time that went into the things the Dakota used, wore or ate – whether it was a tool, article of clothing or recipe.

The art of moccasin-making illustrates how the Dakota made beautiful the things that were used.

The art of moccasin-making illustrates how the Dakota made beautiful the things that were used.

There was also a camaraderie to art. In the past, she described, there weren’t “art classes.” Art was learned by generations of people sitting in a circle and trading techniques. There was no talk of mastering skills – in fact, there were social rules around how the first item made would be gifted after completion. People simply created together, cultivating a productive social and political dialogue. It was about pleasant social interaction.

Another aspect of traditional Dakota art was that it had social value. Cavender said society valued people who could create the art, teach it and trade it. Art was part of the economy, and particularly skilled artists were valued by the community.

More Classes, More Space

In line with the First Nations grant objective to perpetuate, proliferate and revitalize traditional Native artistic and cultural assets, the new 12-month project was conceptualized to build on this vison – to bring art back to the way it was: a dynamic part of the culture.

The project’s main impetus was to meet a need expressed by one of the master apprentices: A sewing group that was learning star quilt making had requested a space to quilt together. Recognizing the social role of art, the community wanted to first create a communal arts space. Through the project, it was able to designate a space in an existing community building and equip it with craft tables, storage, lighting and a quilting machine.

The project then involved convening artist gatherings to promote Dakota art and to support and nurture artists. From there, community art exhibits were featured at the tribal headquarters.

Fostering Healing and Wellness

The project provided over 44 weeks of arts programming, and in doing so brought together quilters, painters, beaders and quillworkers in the communal space to share and learn. It also accomplished something inherent in the project title: Gathering and Healing Through Arts.

Cavender explained that by restoring art to its traditional standing, the project brought a healing, therapeutic component to the artists and students. Through the project, it became apparent how much art was in the community, but it was not being showcased or honored. “This contributed to artists’ feelings of being invisible. There were misconceptions of who they were and what they were doing.”

Through the emphasis on the social value of their work, these artists began to come out from their private studios and homes. The community art room created a safe space for creativity. A shift began in how artists were perceived, which ultimately improved their social and mental healing, Cavender said. “At a time when Indigenous people in our community struggle with substance abuse, intense penalties in the justice system, and poorer educational outcomes, they see how art can provide a lift up.”

Excitement for the Future

Displays showcase artist profiles, which help raise the prestige of art in the community.

Displays showcase artist profiles, which help raise the prestige of art in the community.

With the project completed, there is a now a structure for classes in place, an established communal space, and the momentum to build on this success. In the Upper Sioux Community, art is being recognized socially and monetarily with the first artist showcase resulting in the sale of $1,300 worth of textile art. Cavender said people are excited to learn about who will be the next master apprentice to host in the roundhouse. And the project has created a foundation for next steps – expanded art programs, youth and adult classes, and maybe a designated retail space in the community.

Getting to this point has been a process, and Cavender said they are thankful for the support of First Nations. Of course, Cavender explained the organization needed fiscal resources, but it also benefited from First Nations’ advice, expertise, networking opportunities and connections. Moreover, she said First Nations understood the prestige of art and the need to showcase it properly with display materials, quilt racks and mannequins. “First Nations granted a legitimacy to what we wanted to do, and that translated into what we were able to do for artists and how we were able to promote them,” she said.

Keeping Culture Alive

The Upper Sioux Community met its goals in gathering and healing through art. The group united people and strengthened community. Importantly, it began to take art out of the “glass box,” where it was inaccessible and unusable, and made it part of the culture.

“After all,” Cavender explained, “culture and tradition are dynamic things. They only work when everyone does them. By making art practical, social and valued, we can ensure it always thrives.”

By Amy Jakober

Catalyzing Native Giving: Building Capacity of Nonprofits

Left to right are Chris White, Leilani Chow, Carnell Chosa, Jona Charette and Chastity Salvador.

Left to right are Chris White, Leilani Chow, Carnell Chosa, Jona Charette and Chastity Salvador.

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) has long believed that a healthy and strong Native nonprofit sector builds stronger Native communities. To increase the success of Native-led nonprofits, First Nations partnered with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to provide capacity-building grants to selected organizations to empower these nonprofits to achieve their missions so that they might better serve their communities.

Many Native-led nonprofit organizations, like most grassroots organizations, are small and possess limited resources. First Nations’ capacity-building grants are intended to improve nonprofit leadership, promote organizational growth, facilitate community engagement and, most importantly, generate revenue for sustainability. Strong grantwriting skills are key when it comes to generating revenue for these organizations.

In 2018, First Nations Development Officer Jona Charette (Northern Cheyenne/Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) and four of First Nations’ previous grantees successfully completed a grantwriters’ certification program offered through the American Grant Writers Association (AGWA). The purpose of the course, which is primarily administered online, is to demystify the grantwriting process by focusing on the basics of successful grantwriting.

This first cohort took courses that focused on how to research grants, write proposal narratives, plan budgets and measure outcomes. “Overall, we learned how to make our grant applications more competitive,” said Leilani Chow of Sustʻāinable Molokai, a Native Hawaiian nonprofit organization that focuses on agriculture and renewable energy.

Three representatives from the Santa Fe Indian School’s Leadership Institute (LI), including LI Co-Director Carnell Chosa (Jemez Pueblo), and two former LI students, Chris White (Kewa Pueblo/Diné) and Chastity Salvador (Acoma Pueblo), also participated in the course. The LI, a culturally and community-based think tank located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, focuses on supporting Indigenous community members to engage in addressing community issues.

“Two of our former SFIS and LI students, graduates of Columbia University and Stanford University, also took this course,” said Chosa. “For me, it is important to strengthen the capacity we have here in New Mexico and within our communities. I envision both Chris and Chastity providing this much-needed service to our Pueblo communities.”

Indeed, White and Salvador, who just completed this grantwriting course a few months ago, have already started to put these new grantwriting skills to work. After completing the course, White used the knowledge and skills that he learned to help review and edit a grant application that his mother was writing to secure funding for Santo Domingo Pueblo’s language department.

As Chosa envisioned, White was able to use his new grantwriting skills to better serve Pueblo communities. “Because of this grantwriting course, I now know what funders are looking for,” said White. “I was able to help my mom strengthen her grant application and make it more competitive. She received that grant.”

First Nations believes that strategically investing in Native-led nonprofit organizations is important. This investment not only builds the capacity of the Native nonprofit sector, but also helps strengthen and empower the many tribal people and communities they serve.

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Communications Officer

Nooksack Tribe’s Garden Helps Feed Elders and Youth

Fifty-seven volunteers, including 21 youth volunteers, devoted more than 350 hours to planting and harvesting two community gardens.

Fifty-seven volunteers, including 21 youth volunteers, devoted more than 350 hours to planting and harvesting two community gardens.

In 2015, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) launched its “Seeds of Native Health” grant program with the generous support of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which conceived and created the overarching Seeds of Native Health campaign. The purpose of the campaign is to support Native tribes and organizations working to eliminate food insecurity, promote access to fresh and healthy foods, and provide increased access to nutritional programs aimed at improving the overall nutrition and health of Native people and communities.

The Nooksack Indian Tribe, located in the northwest corner of Washington, was one of 12 tribes and organizations to receive grants in the second year (2016) of the “Seeds” program. The tribe received $30,478 to establish a community garden to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and also provide cooking and nutrition classes to promote healthy eating and reduce the risk of chronic diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Far exceeding the goals and expectations the tribe set for itself at the beginning of this project, it planted more than 5,430 square feet of vegetables, including beans, potatoes, squash and tomatoes to name a few. It donated the entire crop, nearly 200 bags of produce, to the local food bank, and delivered another 60-plus bags to tribal elders.

One Garden Becomes Two

The Nooksack Indian Tribe's community garden produced 2,803 pounds of food.

The Nooksack Indian Tribe’s community garden produced 2,803 pounds of food.

Initially, the tribe only planned to grow and harvest one large community garden, but then decided to revive a second, smaller garden that had been abandoned. The additional garden was supported with funding from WEAVE and the Indian Health Services. Fifty-seven volunteers, including 21 youth volunteers, devoted more than 350 hours to planting and harvesting both gardens. These volunteers included employees from the tribe’s social services, natural resources, and transportation departments, as well as the health clinic.

These volunteers truly helped make the tribe’s “Seeds of Native Health” project a community effort. “The Seeds of Native Health grant gave individuals from different tribal departments the opportunity to work together jointly to grow and harvest food for our community,” said Barbara Himes, Nutritionist and Diabetes Educator for the Nooksack Indian Tribe. “Because of this project, we have been able to interact with community members, especially our youth and elders, more frequently.”

Harvest boxes were donated to the local food bank and senior center.

Harvest boxes were donated to the local food bank and senior center.

With this grant, the Nooksack Tribe was also able to hire a full-time gardener who coordinated the planting and maintenance of the two gardens, and also prepared harvest boxes to donate to community members, the local food bank and senior center. In 2017, the Nooksack Indian tribe distributed 2,803 pounds of fresh produce to community members. Additionally, the tribe’s gardener and nutritionist worked together to compile a cookbook that included recipes using traditional foods. They included a copy of this cookbook in every harvest box.

In addition to giving individual harvest boxes to community members, the tribe also donated food from the community garden for senior lunches. For years, senior lunches were provided by the tribe’s casino. “The community garden ensures that our tribal elders will receive healthier meals that are lower in sodium and fat and include fresh vegetables and fruit,” said Himes.

Tribal Youth Show an Interest

The Nooksack Indian Tribe donated 260 harvest boxes to community members.

The Nooksack Indian Tribe donated 260 harvest boxes to community members.

Seventeen tribal adults attended the tribe’s nine food demonstration and nutrition classes. Even more surprising to project organizers, 28 tribal youth also decided to attend cooking and nutrition classes. As a result, project organizers decided to revise the curriculum to include hands-on activities that were more age appropriate.

The tribe’s name, Nooksack, comes from a name in the Nooksack language that translates to “always bracken fern roots,” which underscores the tribe’s strong connection to the land. The Nooksack Indian Tribe’s traditional homeland has always been – and clearly, continues to be – a tremendous source of strength and healing for their people. The tribe is a model program that highlights the best of the Native food sovereignty movement. In one year, the tribe, with assistance from the “Seeds of Native Health” grant program, was able to significantly improve the health and well-being of its tribal community, especially that of the tribal youth and elders, using their own traditional knowledge and resources.

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Communications Officer

Donor Mark Habeeb: Inspiration & Positivity that Drive Change

First Nations appreciates the ongoing support and dedication of donors Mark Habeeb and his wife, Wendy Mills.

First Nations appreciates the ongoing support and dedication of donors Mark Habeeb and his wife, Wendy Mills.

Longtime First Nations supporter Mark Habeeb knows what it takes to change the world: A bottom-up, top-down approach that tackles the big picture and the everyday details. When it comes to uplifting Native communities, he sees the need to both change the overall narrative of Native Americans and create opportunities for every child born on a reservation. This dual approach is what drew this Washington, D.C.-based educator to First Nations and continues to fuel his dedication.

Rooted in Education

Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Mark went on to graduate from Georgetown University, and then obtained his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. He served as an international consultant and foreign policy advisor to a U.S. senator before becoming a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, focusing on negotiation and conflict resolution. Mark has written several books on international affairs, world history and culture.

This broad educational and professional background has given him an enhanced ear to issues in humanity and the plight of marginalized populations. One of those populations has been Native Americans.

“There’s so many conflicts in the world that are based on identity – over who people are,” explains Mark. “Fundamentally it’s race and prejudice based on an underlying theory that some humans are worth more than other humans.”

Mark notes that prejudice in America dates back to “Day 1,” when Native people were declared illegal in their own land. “You often hear slavery described as America’s original sin. While yes, that was horrific, I would say that the original sin was the genocide of Native Americans,” he asserts.

With this in mind, Mark knew he wanted to give something back to Native American communities, and he sought an organization that aligned with his approach to effecting change.

Community-Level Empowerment

Wendy, right, with artist Maria Romero, a potter, during the First Nations Southwest Tour in 2017.

Wendy, right, with artist Maria Romero, a potter, during the First Nations Southwest Tour in 2017.

For Mark, First Nations’ focus on enriching and sustaining Native cultures and traditions through investments in communities was especially appealing. “Because when you empower individuals and communities, you dramatically increase the potential for impact and sustainability.

“Even if you think about it politically,” he says, “Your local school board actually has more influence over your child’s growth than the U.S. Department of Education. The local level is where things happen. And that’s the bulk of First Nations’ work.”

Mark and his wife, Wendy – who shares his admiration for First Nations’ work – were able to see the empowerment in action when they joined First Nations on its Southwest Tour of some of First Nations’ grantees in the Santa Fe, New Mexico, area. First Nations conducts the tours to show first-hand how First Nations supports homegrown solutions to community needs. Here, Mark and Wendy could see the preservation of cultures, language and food, which Mark says sustains communities and makes them interesting.

Broad-Level Shift

At the same time, Mark sees the need to address racist policies and attitudes that prevent opportunity and progress. He refers to the First Nations-led “Reclaiming Native Truth” study conducted with support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and others that set out to transform the “enforced invisibility of and racist narratives about Native Americans through unprecedented national research.”

One of the things the study showed was that many people polled didn’t think Indians exist anymore. He said he was disappointed and shocked by that finding, but that it is indicative of what Americans are taught to believe.

“The lack of awareness and respect shows how racism is still rampant in our country – against Native Americans, blacks and anyone whose skin is not white,” he says. “People think we’ve worked through it, but we haven’t.”

Mark talks candidly about what he sees regularly in Washington, D.C. – Outrage over racist remarks by an American president, while at the same time city-wide cheers for the Washington NFL team with a racist name. The accepted use of such a derogatory word shows how enduring and pervasive racism is in our lives, he says, noting how the imagery of Native Americans is portrayed in our advertising, food products, cigarettes and mascots.

“It’s just a seed that keeps growing,” he says. “It again stems from the belief that some people’s lives are worth more than others. And the only way to fight this racism is to change the narrative from the top down.”

A Combined Strategy

George Toya describes the greenhouse operation at Nambé Pueblo, while Wendy, a Master Gardener (closest to George), listens and takes notes.

George Toya describes the greenhouse operation at Nambé Pueblo during the Southwest Tour, while Wendy, a Master Gardener (closest to George), listens and takes notes.

Still, Mark concedes that shifting the narrative at the national level is not going to solve the effects of racism in the immediate moment. “If they changed the racist nicknames tomorrow, it’s not going to change the lives of people on reservations,” he says. “You have to do both.”

Mark sees racism as something based on a fear of people who are different from ourselves. We see difference as frightening or as something less good, he explains. But instead, those differences should be celebrated. “That’s what makes our species interesting. Our expression of art, music and culture make us different from any other creature,” he says. “Those differences shouldn’t be seen as a source of stereotyping or a human flaw. They’re universal, and they should be celebrated.”

And this is another reason he and Wendy gravitate to First Nations.

“They approach things in a celebratory way,” he says. “With First Nations, we’re going to own our narrative. We’re going to empower people. We’re going to build community. So that a Native American child has a decent chance.”

Working Together for a Brighter World

How would the world be if everything that Mark, Wendy and First Nations were striving for were complete?

Mark says it would be a strong world of sustainable communities. People would maintain a link with their heritage and their past, but everyone would grow up with opportunities to thrive and succeed, however that’s defined.

“You could be Native American without that bringing about any prejudice against you,” he envisions.

He says rightful owners of land would be recognized and respected even if they don’t “own” that land today. “Anyone who comes to this country from somewhere else knows that they’re living on land that at some point was taken from someone else. We’re all living on a confiscated continent. This means we all owe something back.”

“We can’t undo the past destruction of Native American life in this country,” he says. “But as much as possible, we can level the playing field for people today.”

By Amy Jakober

REDCO is Reclaiming Food Systems on Rosebud Reservation

Summer interns in the Keya Wakpala community garden.

Summer interns in the Keya Wakpala community garden.

The Rosebud Indian Reservation, located in south-central South Dakota, is home to the Sicangu Lakota Oyate (“Burnt Thigh Nation”). In 1999, the tribe established the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO), a chartered corporation managed by an independent board of directors, to promote economic growth and generate revenue for the tribe.

Over the past five years REDCO has grown from losing over a million dollars a year to generating annual profits of nearly a half-million dollars, and it has expanded businesses and launched a series of innovative community development programs. REDCO’s community development centerpiece is the Keya Wakpala Development, a 590-acre site that will include homes and businesses that promote traditional culture, language and familial tribal structure.

Food Sovereignty Initiatives

Leahanna Keeler, REDCO intern, conducted more than 150 community food assessment surveys. After her internship was over, she was hired as REDCO's garden manager.

Leahanna Keeler, REDCO intern, conducted more than 150 community food assessment surveys. After her internship was over, she was hired as REDCO’s garden manager.

REDCO began surveying community members about the design and function of this new community project in 2014. In addition to housing and retail space, many tribal members pointed out the need for a community garden, farmers’ market and other food sovereignty initiatives at the new site. REDCO took the community’s suggestions to heart, and within a year began using First Nations Development Institute’s Food Sovereignty Assessment Tool (FSAT) to conduct a food assessment.

In 2016, First Nations awarded REDCO a $20,000 food sovereignty assessment grant, courtesy of the NoVo Foundation Fund at the Tides Foundation, to complete community food assessments for eight of the 20 communities across the reservation. REDCO initially began working on these surveys in 2015 with assistance from the Notah Begay III Foundation, but quickly ran out of funding to travel to and survey the tribe’s more isolated communities (end to end, the reservations extends over 150 miles).

With this $20,000 grant, REDCO hired a food sovereignty director and two interns to compile and analyze the remaining data. Between January and April 2016, REDCO interns conducted more than 150 surveys at community meetings, basketball games and in the tribal college cafeteria. It also purchased a new computer and software to evaluate the data, which confirmed that Rosebud is a food desert, and that tribal members want greater access to healthy, traditional foods.

Tate Bird, REDCO intern, conducts a food sovereignty assessment worksheet.

Tate Bird, REDCO intern, conducts a food sovereignty assessment interview.

REDCO used this information to establish the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative, a community-based project that promotes “an Indigenous food system that will ensure wicozani (health of mind, body and spirit) for current and future generations.” Through this initiative, REDCO has been able to partner with communities in rural and remote areas that cannot easily access REDCO’s centrally-located farmers’ market. For example, since conducting a community food assessment, REDCO has partnered with the Soldier Creek Community to plant a pumpkin patch, and the Horse Creek Community to plant 800 fruit trees, thereby ensuring that all tribal members have access to healthy, traditional foods.

“Meaningful Partnerships”

Tate Bird, REDCO intern, at the 14th Annual Indigenous Farming Conference.

Tate Bird at the 14th Annual Indigenous Farming Conference.

Mike Prate, REDCO’s food sovereignty director, points out that community food assessments are about more than just collecting data.These assessments also promote community-building. “After we conducted the community food assessment, we made sure that we returned to each community to present our findings, so that we could build trust and develop meaningful partnerships,” said Prate. “We want to empower our communities.”

First Nations believes that good food is essential to healthy, strong tribal nations. Through the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative, REDCO has taken an important step toward empowering the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, who have made the conscious decision to “reclaim their inherent sovereign rights as a people by re-embracing traditional values of self-reliance and sustainability in order to sustain their families (Tiwahe), communities (Ospaye), and their Oyate (the Lakota Nation).”

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Communications Officer

Sacred Pipe Artists Unite to Connect, Empower & Return Value

Designing a logo was a key component in the marketing plan and outreach for Native Artists United.

Designing a logo was a key component in the marketing plan and outreach for Native Artists United.

When Shawna Fricke (Paiute/Taos Pueblo, from Big Pine, California) arrived in North Dakota from California, she didn’t find much representation for the artist community. Used to galleries, workshops and an artist scene, she says she found the environment shocking and yearned for the collaboration and support of fellow artists.

Since then, and with Shawna’s help, Native Artists United was able to formalize as a Native artist cooperative. With the support of a grant award to the Sacred Pipe Resource Center under First Nations’ Native Arts Initiative, this cooperative continues to work to make Native art more valuable and visible and give Native artists throughout the region the support they need to thrive. (You can find Native Artists United on Facebook at and on Instagram at

A Need to Come Together

Sacred Pipe Resource Center

Sacred Pipe Resource Center

Indeed, the artist environment Shawna arrived at was bleak. According to Sacred Pipe Resource Center Executive Director Cheryl Ann Kary, there were American Indian artists active in the area, but there were no formal structures for them in place. The North Dakota Indian Arts Association had created “Five Nations Arts” with plans to start a cooperative, but the association was dissolved, and Five Nations Art was sold to the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation.

Cheryl Ann says the organization was able to occupy a small retail space for a time in the historic train depot. Still, this shop operated as a consignment gift shop, where art was routinely marked up to sell to tourists, with proceeds not going back to the artists. Adding insult to injury, the lease was renegotiated, the building was converted to a bar, and the Five Nations shop was moved again to a smaller, even more out-of-the-way section of the building, reduced to 5% of the overall space.

What little visibility artists had was further tucked away, and the value of and cultural meaning behind their art was further diminished.

“It was not a place that wanted to promote or support artists,” says Holly Doll, who manages Five Nations Art. “It was more like a space for artists to make a quick buck. There was no passion to it.”

The move again to a smaller location, combined with the overall state of neglect for the area’s artists, was the impetus for action. Holly reached out to Cheryl Ann at Sacred Pipe and an idea took hold.

Connecting and Collaborating

Holly Doll, Willow Doll, Stacey LaCompte of North Dakota Indian Business Alliance, Taylor Wilkinson, Shawna Fricke, Emma Goodhouse-Doll, and Cheryl Ann Kary (not pictured) of Sacred Pipe Resource Center discuss next moves for Native Artists United.

Holly Doll, Willow Doll, Stacey LaCompte of North Dakota Indian Business Alliance, Taylor Wilkinson, Shawna Fricke, Emma Goodhouse-Doll, and Cheryl Ann Kary (not pictured) of Sacred Pipe Resource Center discuss next moves for Native Artists United.

Holly and Cheryl Ann set out to combine the momentum of Five Nations Art with the resources of Sacred Pipe. Sacred Pipe Resource Center addresses the “social/cultural, emotional, mental, spiritual and physical needs of Native people of all tribes living in the Bismarck-Mandan and surrounding areas.” What sets the organization apart is that it serves Native people throughout North and South Dakota who are residing equally on and off reservation.

Together Holly and Cheryl Ann connected with six artists from the Bismarck-Mandan area with whom Sacred Pipe and Five Nations Arts had previously worked. These artists have skills in beadwork, Native jewelry, Native fashion, print art, star quilting and other artistry. Together, the group developed a formal structure for the cooperative and delved into opportunities to strengthen their collaboration, share resources and restore the value of their art in the community.

They met regularly to draft bylaws, set up policies and formalize Native Artists United. They utilized funding from First Nations to hold a strategic planning and visioning session to further hone their efforts. The addition of the executive director of the North Dakota Indian Business Alliance, Stacey LaCompte, to the group led to further plans to complete a business plan, register with the state, and delve into marketing.

Because so many Natives reside off reservation, funding was needed to reach these artists, as well as develop the legal and business structure of the group. The structure chosen was a cooperative, which is in line with the traditional tribal values of cooperation and democracy, Cheryl Ann says. It’s a structure void of competition so that it doesn’t thwart the perpetuation of Native arts. It’s built on collaboration, belonging, vision and shared beliefs.

Native Artists United reaches out to young people through the Thusweca Beading and Cultural Academy. Here, a student in Taylor Wilkinson’s class learns the art of flat/running stitch beading.

Native Artists United reaches out to young people through the Thusweca Beading and Cultural Academy. Here, a student in Taylor Wilkinson’s class learns the art of flat/running stitch beading.

The choice of a cooperative is also in line with the Sacred Pipe Resource Center itself, which uses the symbol of the sacred pipe to demonstrate partnerships and positive collaboration based on shared experiences.

Another attribute of Native Artists United is that it is women-based.

Emma Goodhouse Doll, an artist, member of Native Artists United, and mom of Holly Doll, says the fact that the group is all women, at this point, is empowering. “In our culture, women are the ones who hold up everything. You listen to women,” she says. “And this has created more motivation.”

A Business Approach

Now formalized, the cooperative has moved on to create a marketing plan to leverage its time and talents. This was needed to not only increase visibility but to make sure art is assigned the proper value.

“In the consignment model, art was sold to the Lincoln Foundation at the lowest possible price, and then marked up 300%,” says Cheryl Ann.

“It goes to the capitalist model: The cheapest input and the greatest profit,” adds Holly. “Native people aren’t about that. It’s about what the community needs and how we value each community member.”

Cheryl Ann says they had to get Native art back to the point where people know what goes into it. “There’s hundreds of years of culture. When that support isn’t there, it just gets devalued.”

These classes let teens know art can be more than a hobby. It can be a means of livelihood.

These classes let teens know art can be more than a hobby. It can be a means of livelihood.

The group also set out to attend art fairs and events that typically didn’t have Native representation. With funding they could cover fees for the events, share marketing material about the cooperative and hold debriefing sessions to evaluate their needs and successes. The objective involved practicing their skills in working together, and it was a critical step in moving beyond the devaluing consignment store and getting Native artwork in front of more audiences.

Stacey LaCompte, Executive Director of North Dakota Indian Business Alliance, says Native Artists United is now empowered to tell the story of their art, culture and history.

“They’re very strong-minded people who want to move forward,” Stacey says. “They’ve achieved a lot in a small amount of time. As they move forward, more artists will start joining them.”

More Art, More Visibility

Native Artists United is already having an impact. Through the group, there’s more collaboration and outreach for artists and there’s more support to pursue art as a means of livelihood instead of as a quick buck at the consignment store. The group is also engaging with young people through the Thusweca Beading and Cultural Academy, showing kids it is possible to do art as a rewarding and viable career.

For every member of the cooperative, the impact of Native Artists United has been substantial.

Holly Doll says, “I personally feel like there’s more visibility. It’s reassuring for me. I felt very alone for a moment there, but now I have support.”

Artist Taylor Wilkinson says the cooperative has been helpful in getting herself “out there.” “Ever since I’ve joined this group, it’s pushed me forward.”

For artist Willow Doll, Holly’s sister, the cooperative has provided an additional unexpected benefit. She had wanted to branch out more as an artist, but struggled personally with the anxiety of speaking to potential customers and selling her art. Through the encouraging and non-competitive cooperative, she’s overcome this fear. “I’m not afraid anymore,” she says.

Art for the Future

Taylor’s sophisticated beadwork is one of the many forms of art being fostered through Native Artists United.

Taylor’s sophisticated beadwork is one of the many forms of art being fostered through Native Artists United.

A formal evaluation process is now underway to gather data on the cooperative’s progress and identify next steps. Meanwhile, art in the Bismarck-Mandan area is slowly returning to its rightful place.

“Our art is our culture. It’s who we are,” says Cheryl Ann. “When you devalue it, you devalue us.”

Holly adds that the cooperative is also providing a way to share art and thus share culture. “For those who grew up off reservation, it is hard to learn about our ways. The public schools don’t touch on culture. Because of this project, people can find that connection.”

The purpose of First Nations’ Native Arts Initiative is to support Native artistic practices in tribal communities, increasing the intergenerational transference of these practices in tribal communities and ultimately stimulating the perpetuation or proliferation of these practices.

To this end, Cheryl Ann says First Nations not only provided the funding for the cooperative and the outreach, but also guided the group in establishing a vision where Native artists are valued. Youth now understand that art can have a future – it doesn’t have to be a side hobby or a way to make a quick buck.

“Our art is our language,” adds Emma.

“It’s how we keep track of the events that happen to us,” adds Holly.

And it creates a network. For Shawna, who’s made her home in North Dakota, she now has the connection and inspiration of fellow artists and a place to reclaim traditions. For her and the Native tribes and communities of the Bismarck-Mandan area, there’s no longer nothing. There’s art.

By Amy Jakober

$400,000 Awarded to Support 21 Native Youth Programs

Native Youth and Culture Fund

Native Youth and Culture Fund

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) recently announced the selection of 21 American Indian organizations and tribes, in 15 states from Hawaii to Massachusetts, to receive grants through its Native Youth and Culture Fund (NYCF) for the 2018-19 funding cycle. The grants total $400,000.

First Nations launched the NYCF in 2002 with generous support from Kalliopeia Foundation and other foundations and tribal, corporate and individual supporters. The NYCF is designed to enhance culture and language awareness, and promote youth empowerment, leadership and community building. To date under this fund, First Nations has awarded over 370 grants to Native youth programs throughout the U.S., totaling $6.3 million.

These are the 2018-2019 projects:

  1. Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Anchorage, Alaska, $19,550 – ACAT will train Alaska Native adolescent girls from 13 Norton Sound communities using a toolkit created by the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and intergenerational mentoring. The toolkit and mentoring provide a framework for a nascent Alaska Native Girls Network, by offering the historical context for colonization and genocide that colors the contemporary situation in which these girls live, as well as giving them tools to reclaim their voices and control over their futures.
  2. California Indian Basketweavers’ Association, Woodland, California, $14,550 – Tending the Wild: Junior Class will engage Native American youth ages 12 to 22 in learning about traditional basket-weaving practices including gathering, preparation, and storage of basket-weaving materials. The project will focus on preserving traditional cultural knowledge among youth from Siskiyou and Del Norte County in Northern California through field trips and cultural history talks with tribal elders.
  3. Catawba Cultural Preservation Project, Rock Hill, South Carolina, $19,550 – The Catawba Culture Fellowship will develop the cultural skills of five Catawba youth. Fellows will be mentored by accomplished traditional artists in their area of interest and later teach their skills to Catawba Youth participating in summer programs. Fellows will host monthly community luncheons and present their skills to the Catawba community. By connecting cultural skill development, elder mentorship, community culture strengthening, and youth leadership development, it will help prepare the youth to become culturally conscious leaders.
  4. Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Warm Springs, Oregon, $19,550 – The project will serve 160 youth ages 6-17 and will be guided by local artists and elders with support from the Boys and Girls Club of Warm Springs staff. There will be four comprehensive sessions, each meeting for six to eight weeks. The summer session will focus on cultural crafts, fall session on traditional regalia, spring session on the wild game and traditional foods that still grow locally, and winter session will focus on language acquisition.
  5. Five Sandoval Indian Pueblos Inc., Rio Rancho, New Mexico, $19,550 – The project will assist 4- to 5-year-old Head Start children in embracing their cultural identity through everyday classroom instructions. The project’s focus is to implement more age-appropriate cultural-related activities such as song and dance, storytelling, and arts and crafts. The project will also be used to increase parent engagement so children will get educational support at home, creating lifelong learners.
  6. Fort Belknap Indian Community, Harlem, Montana, $14,500 – This project will engage youth ages 5 to 18, and community elders, in activities targeted at renewing cultural uses of medicinal plants. The project will allow youth and elders to form connections that will firmly establish a learning and leadership model as they design, plant and harvest a medicine wheel garden in each of two established community gardens. Participants and leaders will create a digitally-generated medicinal plant guidebook as a final project, allowing others to access valuable local medicinal plant information.
  7. Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Peshawbestown, Michigan, $19,550 – The project is to teach dance styles, origins and regalia making to the youth. The Chippewa Indians cultural focus will be Anishinaabek dance customs with emphasis on language use for powwow etiquette. The project will serve students who want to live a healthy lifestyle, currently participate in Anishinaabemowin classes, attend school regularly, and show a commitment to preserving the culture and traditions.
  8. Inter Tribal Sports, Inc., Temecula, California, $20,000 – The project aims to provide four regional traditional Native artists from within the reservation with opportunities to connect with, teach and engage up to 560 tribal youth ages 4 to 18 through mentoring and teaching of traditional arts. The project is designed to bring together intergenerational teachings, build connections and inspire next-generation traditional artists. The Native artists come from Kumeyaay, Cahuilla, Luiseño, Diegueño and Cupeño cultures from the Southern California region.
  9. Kauahea Inc., Wailuku, Hawaii, $19,550 – Kupuohi i Paeloko will recruit 20 eighth to 12th graders from the Native Hawaiian population on Maui. Students will learn Mālama ʻĀina (land stewardship), Nā Mea Kanu (Native plants) and the cultural practices that are critical to increasing and maintaining Hawaiian identity. With Hawaiian Kupuna (elders) and practitioners, students will design, coordinate and implement plans using the crops that are planted, nurtured, and produced there. Activities will be based on Hawaiian practices and will incorporate language, ceremony and protocols.
  10. MIGIZI Communications, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota, $19,550 – The purpose of Wanna Wota (“Let’s Eat” in Lakota) is to investigate, document and share information and ideas concerning the revitalization of traditional food systems among the tribes of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. Youth media producers with Migizi’s First Person Productions program will produce a media series that features both elders and young activists from the community who are working to preserve traditional foods and lifestyles as well as introduce urban agriculture to the urban Native community.
  11. Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Okmulgee, Oklahoma, $18,150 – Connect the Disconnect is a youth-led project focused on strengthening cultural and spiritual practices, beliefs and values and increasing youth leadership through integrated educational and mentoring programs. Mvskoke youth ages 12-24 will develop, facilitate, participate and host three one-day events and one overnight camp to connect youth with the Mvskoke culture, to help them face challenges such as bullying, low self-esteem, and suicide. Youth will also develop a social media campaign to promote cultural knowledge and activities throughout the year.
  12. Nipmuc Indian Development Corporation, Grafton, Massachusetts, $19,550 – Nippeash Waapemooash is a developing tribal civics/rites-of-passage initiative addressing the unique challenges Nipmuc youth experience and promoting a positive sense of self-worth and cultural pride within the tribe. The goal is to prepare youth for adulthood through a traditional approach, one that is guided by culture, family and Nipmuc values. Youth, grades 5 to 9, are introduced to histories, traditional arts, farming, and tribal government/civics in a year-long mentoring process with elders and tribal leaders.
  13. Ohero:kon, Akwesasne, New York, $19,550 – Ohero:kon, a Mohawk phrase meaning “under the husk,” is a youth rites-of-passage process at Akwesasne. It’s a ceremonial journey culminating in a solo fast to ensure that the needs within the development of Mohawk future leaders are being met. Beginning each January with mid-winter ceremonies in the longhouse and extending throughout the spring in various traditional settings, the youth receive teachings from the elders about Haudenosaunee traditional knowledge, lifeways and practices as they approach adulthood.
  14. Ohkay Owingeh, Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico, $19,550 – Ohkay Owingeh tribal youth ages 5 to 18 will be provided with greater cultural exposure through a variety of traditional regalia-making classes that will educate, challenge and inspire youth to form lasting linkages to their Native culture and to participate in their cultural ceremonies.
  15. Pala Band of Mission Indians, Pala, California, $20,000 – The Pala Tribe’s Learning Center supports the California American Indian and Indigenous Film Festival (CAIIFF) each year. The Pala Traditional Arts Project links to that previous work by supporting six American Indian students as they create a documentary film based on four Pala Native artists. It will be screened at the 2018 CAIIFF.
  16. Penobscot Nation Boys & Girls Club, Presque Isle, Maine, $19,550 – The project will serve the Boys and Girls Club of Presque Isle (BGCPI) Unit youth ages 5 to 18. It will incorporate culture and tradition to address social issues faced in the community while preserving cultural practices, values and beliefs through engagement between youth and elders, which will be recorded and shared on an online Micmac site that will be supported in collaboration with BGCPI and the Micmac youth, and Cultural and Education Departments.
  17. Pueblo of San Felipe, San Felipe, New Mexico, $19,550 – This project will serve 25 San Felipe youth between the ages of 10 and 18. Elders will identify and teach youth about traditional plant and animal species common to San Felipe Pueblo lands, and their traditional uses in the San Felipe Keres language. Youth will document and record the names of plants and animals using audio and visual equipment.
  18. Santa Fe Indian School, Santa Fe, New Mexico, $19,550 – Brave Girls is an out-of-school leadership and empowerment program for Pueblo Indian girls, grades 7-12, at the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS). The project directly serves the students attending SFIS. The school is a representative of New Mexico’s 22 tribes, providing a great opportunity to reach out to all of the communities.
  19. Tatanka Wakpala Tiyospaye, Gettysburg, South Dakota, $19,550 – Camp Ohokila seeks to bring together a diverse group of Lakota youth to establish a society knowledgeable in Lakota kinship relationships, gender roles, survival skills, traditional food gathering and Lakota crafts and skills. They will commit to protect and support each other while navigating growing up on an Indian reservation. Lakota traditional gender roles include two-spirits. This camp will help combat bullying and suicide, which are both rampant on the reservation.
  20. White Buffalo Recovery Center, St. Stephen’s, Wyoming, $19,550 – The project seeks to enhance three initiatives of White Buffalo Youth Prevention. The first is a three-day summer camp teaching youth decision-making, problem-solving, self-efficacy, social, and communication and survival skills. The second is an annual medicine-gathering trip whereby knowledge about ceremonies and language is shared with youth by elders. The third is using sweat lodges to teach youth about prayer and songs to strengthen their identity. White Buffalo Youth Prevention serves middle school- and high school-aged youth.
  21. Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP), Zuni, New Mexico, $19,550 – In 2018, ZYEP will offer its 10th consecutive summer camp (seven weeks long) where 160 youth participants, ages 6-12, will engage in the following cultural activities: Zuni language, traditional gardening, pottery/mural making, Zuni songs/dances, cultural hikes, and Pueblo oven construction. These activities are blended with a curriculum that includes language arts, nutrition, martial arts, swimming, yoga and stress-management. Summer campers will be mentored by 20 Zuni counselors ages 15-24, who are paid by ZYEP and educated/mentored by local cultural advisors.

New Reports Explore Both Philanthropy and Native Food Systems

We Need to Change How We Think

We Need to Change How We Think

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) recently issued additional reports in its series that examines philanthropy and the underfunding of Native American causes, as well as two new reports that look at Native American food systems.

Philanthropy and Native Causes

The first report, We Need to Change How We Think: Perspectives on Philanthropy’s Underfunding of Native Communities and Causes, continues the discussion on philanthropy and the underfunding of Native American causes. The report, prepared by First Nations’ partner Frontline Solutions, sheds light on the question: Why does philanthropy continue to only minimally support Native American organizations and causes?

Native-Serving Nonprofits and Charity Watchdog Agencies

Native-Serving Nonprofits and Charity Watchdog Agencies

From June 2017 to April 2018, Frontline Solutions conducted research to identify underlying reasons for the chronic underfunding of Native causes. Guided by input from First Nations, Frontline Solutions conducted 42 key informant interviews with leaders from philanthropic foundations and Native-led nonprofit organizations. The philanthropic foundations included some that support Native causes, and some that don’t currently fund Native causes.

The second report, a brief, is titled Native-Serving Nonprofits and Charity Watchdog Agencies. It investigates the lack of inclusion of Native-serving organizations on charity watchdog sites, and details some steps that organizations can take to increase their visibility on some of these sites and beyond.

Native Food Systems

Indigenous Food Systems: Transformative Strategies to Perpetuate Nationhood

Indigenous Food Systems: Transformative Strategies to Perpetuate Nationhood

First Nations also released two new reports as part of its ongoing Nourishing Native Foods and Health program area that focus on increasing knowledge and understanding of Native food systems.

The first report, Indigenous Food Systems: Transformative Strategies to Perpetuate Nationhood, focuses on the Native food sovereignty movement. The report examines what various grantees are doing to protect and perpetuate important food sources, and explains how this work defends tribal nationhood, and is thus vital to both tribal communities and larger society.

The second report, Reviving Economies, Restoring Food Systems: Models of Food Enterprises in Indian Country, highlights five food enterprises in Native American and Native Hawaiian communities that are leading the way to increase positive health factors and build wealth for their community members on Indigenous terms.

Reviving Economies, Restoring Food Systems: Models of Food Enterprises in Indian Country

Reviving Economies, Restoring Food Systems: Models of Food Enterprises in Indian Country

All of these reports can be downloaded for free from the First Nations Knowledge Center at Please note that if you don’t already have one, you must create a free user account to download the reports. Your account will give you access to these and many other materials and resources in the Knowledge Center.


Board Profile: Monica Nuvamsa and Her Hopi Community

Monica Nuvamsa

Monica Nuvamsa

When Monica Nuvamsa first ventured away from her home in northeastern Arizona at age 17, she had her sights on new worlds to explore. As her path led her to Tucson, to Flagstaff and, ultimately, to Washington, D.C., she discovered her greatest world was the one back in her community. Now, with a goal to invest her knowledge, experience and skills in the strengthening of her Hopi Tribe, Monica is bringing her perspective to the First Nations Board of Directors, showing how efforts on a national scale translate into the day-to-day operations of a local village.

Where Women are Valued

The reasons for Monica returning to her roots are clear when she talks about her childhood. She grew up in the Village of Songoopavi on the Hopi Reservation, in a strong female matriarchy.

“There’s a saying that Hopis have,” she says. “A man who has a lot of daughters is a rich man.”

The reason for this, she says, is that women strengthen the whole clan. They are the resources – key to the day-to-day operations in farming and ranching, and imperative to Hopi rituals and ceremonies. They lend support in every task, and they make it possible to create more generations of that support. “The men may be the managers. But the women are the owners,” she says.

Monica was raised in that culture. As the only daughter of an only daughter, she found support in an extended family of mothers, grandmothers and aunts, where all women played a maternal role.

“We never felt like we were a single-unit family,” she says. “Our extended family is our family. So when we do something in the community, we all stand behind it.”

Venturing Out

Monica Nuvamsa

Monica Nuvamsa

Leaving for college at the University of Arizona with a parental permission slip because she wasn’t yet 18, Monica drew from this strength. It was a new world. But she knew if she never went past Phoenix, she would never grow as a person.

As first-generation college students, she and her cousin, who enrolled with her, had to adjust to a strange community that was like a “foreign country.” They struggled with the things that most new students struggle with – such as living away from home and finding classes – but they also had to make their way through challenges they’d never been exposed to before in the Native community, such as opening a checking account, finding an apartment, and getting transportation to and from campus.

“We were adjusting on two fronts, and it was a culture shock,” she says. Still, she stuck with it, saying, “I wasn’t going to become another statistic. I had to learn fast.”

Learn she did. Monica set on a path for architecture. Wanting to have more of a social impact, she then changed to pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology/health sciences and American Indian studies. With that curriculum, she was able to take advantage of the U of A’s research focus and take graduate courses in qualitative and applied learning.

Monica with her maternal and paternal grandmothers at her college graduation in 1996.

Monica with her maternal and paternal grandmothers at her college graduation in 1996.

Part of that work involved evaluating federal diversity grants, reviewing grant applications and projected and obtained outcomes. This experience would become the backbone for a career in grantwriting, public policy and advocacy.

Advocate for Culture & Students

After college, Monica was given the opportunity to return to northern Arizona to serve as an advocate and project coordinator for the Hopi Tribe’s Domestic Violence Program, which was one of the many nationwide initiatives surrounding the federal Violence Against Women Act. She was involved with the program for two years, during which it was recognized as a best practice in Native policy and it experienced revenue growth from $75,000 to over half a million.

From there, she was asked by the chair of the Hopi Tribe to serve as the tribe’s intergovernmental affairs liaison. Here, she recognized herself as an “implementer” of vision and scope, who could translate what was going on in the state legislature and put it into a tangible context, she says.

Monica during her first year with the Morris K. Udall Congressional Internship Program.

Monica during her first year with the Morris K. Udall Congressional Internship Program.

After her four-year commitment with the chairman’s office, Monica transitioned away from politics for a short time. She sought work back in Tucson, and ultimately accepted a position as a program manager for the Native American Congressional Internship Program under the Morris K. Udall Foundation, which has offices in both Tucson and Washington, D.C.

In her new role, Monica moved to D.C., where she placed Native American college graduates in positions on the Hill and in the Senate and House. The foundation worked with individuals from federally-recognized tribes and those who specifically lived in America. Knowing how important support systems are for Native people in new environments, Monica wanted to expand outreach beyond these categories. She advocated for the foundation to also work with state-recognized tribes, and to open eligibility for Native individuals from Canada, through provisions of the Good Trade Treaty. Both these feats she was able to accomplish.

Throughout her experiences – from leaving for college, to implementing national policy for Hopi people, to advocating for Native students in the nation’s capital – Monica says she was always very intentional. She is slow and steady, a stabilizer and a calculated risk-taker. In that manner, as she honed her skills in policy and administration, she next became intent on how she wanted to use them: At home, in her Native community.

Returning to Lead

Monica came back to the Hopi community and began as the executive director of The Hopi Foundation, which works to promote self-sufficiency and community participation in the destiny, self-reliance and local self-determination of the Hopi people. In this role, she combines her advocacy training with her grantwriting and foundation experience, pursing initiatives toward Native philanthropy, youth engagement and community strengthening. She also meshes her experiences of life in the big city and life in a small village to bring forth a broader perspective on racism and reclaiming Native truth.

Monica and her goddaughter at her corn-grinding ceremony.

Monica and her goddaughter at her corn-grinding ceremony.

“When you’re in the village, there is no racism outside your front door. Everyone looks like us and we don’t have to be different or justify ourselves,” she says. “But when we go to border towns we experience that racism and inequity and we’re recognized for poverty and alcoholism. Those are generalities that hurt our community.”

In her work at The Hopi Foundation, Monica works to change those perceptions.

“Many Native Americans feel there’s no need to rehash the past. As a result, people think we’re a dying race,” she says. “Taking over the narrative is the best way to overcome those misperceptions.”

In her role, she calls on her upbringing by strong women in advancing the foundation’s work toward domestic violence prevention. And she calls on her roots in kinship and intergenerational knowledge transfer to pursue another focus on youth engagement.

She also brings her experience to board leadership roles. She is the only Native representation on the Arizona Grantmakers Forum. She is also one of the newest members of the board of First Nations, an organization she says she’s always admired from afar for its work in food sovereignty, financial literacy and philanthropy.

The day Monica became a grandmother in 2013.

The day Monica became a grandmother in 2013.

She says she sees parallels between what First Nations does on a national level – food system evaluation, leadership programming and fundraising – and what the Hopi implement on a smaller, place-based scale. “There’s a ripple effect,” she says. “What happens on the outside ripples inward and then outward.”

She says serving on the board of First Nations lets her see what’s happening on a national scale and how that affects local villages. “I have a community-based lens, and I am happy to be a person on the ground, lending my voice.”

Returning to Family

Back in northeastern Arizona, Monica is not only returning to tribal roots, she’s returning to her family. Growing up with three generations of elders ahead of her, now she’s a grandmother herself with two generations under her. Monica still finds strength in this kinship and the value of the matriarchal society.

Today she takes pride in stepping up to what she sees as her biggest challenge: The cultural responsibilities of spending time, teaching and learning the Hopi ways. But through her work and in her village, she is reinvesting in the foundation, the very place where she’s drawn her strength. She continues being a voice and setting the dialogue for Native people, students, youth, women and grandchildren. She remains stable and intentional, telling her family and the world: “We’re not invisible. We’re still here.”

By Amy Jakober