Matching Gift Challenge for Native American Heritage Month!

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In honor of Native American Heritage Month, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) has been sharing information about one of our newest efforts that is showing great promise — the Native Language Immersion Initiative. This initiative aims to build the capacity of and directly support language-immersion efforts in Native communities. Because Native cultures and languages are, collectively, key assets for all Native communities, First Nations has long supported perpetuation efforts.

This month and going through December 15, 2018, you have a special opportunity to make twice the difference in supporting this important work. The National Endowment for the Humanities has provided a generous matching grant to support even more of these initiatives. So, in honor of Native American Heritage Month, we’re asking good friends like you to help us maximize this opportunity by raising $50,000 for this special initiative before December 15. Your gift of $50 will become $100, $200 will become $400, and so on. Any amount will be doubled!

Please Help Us Meet the Match!

Please Help Us Meet the Match!

We hope that you will support it and help us meet our goal of $50,000 to expand this program. Programs like these are proof positive of what is possible when we come together to support Native communities who are passionate about making tomorrow a better day.

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And if you’ve been receiving our emails or following us on social media, you have seen some of the language articles we’ve sent or posted so far. However, you can also see them on our website at, including an interview on the importance of Native languages with First Nations Board Chair Benny Shendo, Jr., or go directly by way of the following links:

Click here  to view and print a four-page document detailing First Nations’ Language Immersion Initiative. We hope you will share this with your friends, family and local schools.

Read our stories about language preservation efforts at the links below:


Click here to find a list of our current 12 grantees under our Native Language Immersion Initiative.


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“Native Truth” Materials Garner Positive Reactions

Participants at the Reclaiming Native Truth Stakeholders' Meeting. Photo by Ellamarie Quimby Photography.

Participants at the Reclaiming Native Truth Stakeholders’ Meeting. Photo by Ellamarie Quimby Photography.

Back in June, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) released groundbreaking research about attitudes toward and perceptions of Native Americans as part of a jointly-managed effort called Reclaiming Native Truth: A Project to Dispel America’s Myths and Misconceptions. The project also released two messaging guides and a narrative-change strategy framework that will be used to begin to change the false and misleading narratives about Native peoples. Overall, the project seeks to create a long-term, Native-led movement that positively transforms popular narratives and images of Native Americans.

large-vertical-graphicWe have been delighted by the response so far! We have received countless emails, phone calls, texts and even social media messages about the materials and the project itself, as well as stated commitments by many folks to begin their own efforts to change the perceptions of Native Americans.

As a reminder, the materials are readily available for use at Individuals and organizations — Native and non-Native alike — are encouraged to download the research findings and messaging guides, and put them into daily use and practice, whether that be in face-to-face conversations, in written communications, or in digital media such as social-media channels, videos or websites.

“Some incredible findings were unearthed through this research – many of which had long been experienced and assumed but not proven,” said Michael E. Roberts (Tlingit), President & CEO of First Nations, at the time the reports were published. “The findings clearly validate the realities that so many Native people face in their day-to-day interactions in communities. They provide our project, and the larger movement, with a strong foundation upon which to move forward.”

One of the most significant outcomes related to developing and testing a new strength-based narrative that incorporated messaging related to values, history and the visibility of Native peoples. The narrative was tested through an online survey with 2,000 Americans over age 18. Majorities of Americans support the new narrative and find it credible. A 65 percent majority say they would be willing — 31 percent very willing — to share these ideas with others. More issue-specific narrative messages written around key issues — mascots, the Indian Child Welfare Act, tribal sovereignty and pop culture depictions of Native Americans — find similar validation.

Cover-CollageNarratives are broadly accepted, overarching stories that reinforce ideas, norms and expectations in society. Repeated over and over, through diverse platforms and channels, a narrative becomes the story people accept without question. Often a narrative reinforces the status quo and perpetuates unfair systems, structures and norms. The Reclaiming Native Truth project worked to identify and test the new accurate narrative that can support cultural shifts to advance social and policy change to support racial equity and justice for Native Americans and tribal nations.

The next phase of work is focused on bringing together the power of many movements — of organizations, tribes, grassroots leaders, non-Native allies, foundations — each of whom can adopt, adapt and disseminate the new shared narrative as part of their ongoing efforts and work, while leading implementation of their own priority strategies. An introduction to the narrative and messaging strategies are available as part of the Reclaiming Native Truth messaging guides at The detailed research report and the Narrative-Change Strategy are also available online.

“We sought and received input and feedback at every step in the project, from more than 180 stakeholders, including an incredible swath of Indian Country that came together in a new and different way to support these efforts.” Roberts noted. “Their voices are reflected in this project and we are all committed to work together going forward. Native Americans and tribes have faced discrimination and bias at every level of society, institutionally, and within government. They have been held back from reaching their full potential by the negative stereotypes, damaging misperceptions and lack of awareness that prevail within education, the media, entertainment, popular culture and among thought leaders. Changing that begins now.”

“Gather” Food Sovereignty Film Coming in 2019!

Photo of Apache Beans by Taylor Minjarez (White Mountain Apache)

Photo of Apache Beans by Taylor Minjarez (White Mountain Apache)

The First Nations-produced, feature-length film Gather is in post-production now with an anticipated completion date of Spring 2019 (see earlier story here). The filmmakers will then announce a premiere date and location and will begin a screening tour in Indian Country.

Meanwhile, the affiliated journalism project continues to produce exceptional reporting of critical food sovereignty issues.

Journalist Chelsey Luger recently filed a story with on the Navajo Beef cooperative, also a First Nations grantee.

“On the 14-R Ranch, there are considerably more cattle than people. Just north of Sanders, Arizona — population 3,716 — about 2,000 head roam more than 300,000 acres.

“Unlike the more verdant cattle ranches of the Great Plains, the land here on the Navajo Nation is peppered with patchy vegetation — a desert surrounded by junipers and red sand. But what the area lacks in grass density it makes up for in extended acreage, offering plenty of food for cattle, which 14-R ranchers say results in healthier, better-tasting meat and a notably ecological operation.”

Read more here:

Journalist Kim Baca also filed a story on how food sovereignty is moving to the web.

“In a white ceramic bowl, Mariah Gladstone mixes canned salmon, corn meal and chia — creating the kind of nourishing meal anyone can fix at home in minutes. While it’s not exactly what her Blackfeet ancestors ate, the ingredients have a long history: They have helped sustain entire civilizations.

“The connection between traditional foods and culture can be lost if it is not practiced. But through outreach endeavors like her cooking videos, Gladstone and other Native cooks are helping their peers embrace their culinary traditions by teaching about traditional foods, what they are, and how to find and cook them.”

Read more here:


Native Students Challenge School Officials Over Inappropriate Assignment

Catawba Cultural Fellowship Program Director DeLesslin George-Warren and 2018 Fellows Kendell Gunn, Paiton Funderburk and Lauren Carpenter.

Catawba Cultural Fellowship Program Director DeLesslin George-Warren and 2018 Fellows Kendell Gunn, Paiton Funderburk and Lauren Carpenter.

Recently, Lauren Carpenter and Paiton Funderburk, both members of the Catawba Tribe, were given an assignment in their high school’s American history class. The task: debate the pros and cons of the Indian Removal Act, both in class and with a longer paper.

The Indian Removal Act, signed by Andrew Jackson in 1830, forcibly removed 100,000 Choctaws, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles from their traditional homelands. Forced to march westward under U.S. military coercion, 25 percent of the men, women and children died of illness, starvation, exposure and exhaustion.

As the only two American Indian students in the class, Carpenter and Funderburk were deeply uncomfortable with the assignment, and discussed their concerns with their teacher and principal. Both students, along with their parents and other tribal members, explained that the assignment was culturally-insensitive and inappropriate.

“A teacher would never ask students to articulate and defend both sides of The Holocaust,” says DeLesslin George-Warren, Special Projects Coordinator of the Catawba Cultural Fellowship Program. “You wouldn’t ask students if Hitler’s policies were beneficial to Jewish people or gay people or socialists in Nazi Germany.”

CatawbaIndianSeal01Although their teacher and principal sympathized with their concerns, both students were still required to write a paper asking them how Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Policy benefited tribes. Reluctantly, both students wrote papers, which they knew they needed in order to pass American history so they could graduate from high school and fulfill their dreams of earning college degrees.

“This experience has made me more aware of how our culture – and other cultures – are misrepresented in the classroom. It has really affected my views on our education system,” says Carpenter. “This experience has been really eye-opening,” agrees Funderburk. “It shows a lack of knowledge within the education system about Indigenous people.”

In 2016 First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) launched Reclaiming Native Truth: A Project to Dispel America’s Myths and Misconceptions, a co-led nationwide research initiative funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and other supporters. As part of this initiative, researchers collected and analyzed data from focus groups, in-depth interviews and thousands of online survey responses to identify damaging and pervasive American Indian stereotypes, and then explore potential strategies for challenging these harmful narratives.

large-vertical-graphicAmong the many findings, this groundbreaking research revealed that American Indian myths and misconceptions are most often learned in the classroom and ingrained in the minds of students at very young ages. In parent/teacher focus groups, both demographics acknowledged that American Indian culture and history are often “underrepresented and inaccurate” in K-12 curriculum. Furthermore, this research also indicated that many people are angry and disappointed that the information they were taught in school was “so sparse or misleading.”

Seventy-two percent of those surveyed emphasized that it is “necessary to make significant changes to school curriculum.” Although some states such as Oregon, California and a handful of other school boards have started working with Native leaders to correct previously harmful narratives about local tribes, many other school administrators and teachers have yet to follow their lead.

Indeed, many teachers admitted in their Reclaiming Native Truth focus groups that the “history of Native American peoples” and “pre-Columbian American history and culture” are two of the “worst subjects in terms of coverage and accuracy.” The key to overcoming these limitations is for schools to partner with tribes to develop culturally-sensitive curriculum that is grounded in the tribe’s specific culture and history.

Unfortunately, until such curriculum changes occur, American Indian students must sit in classrooms that dismiss and devalue their culture and history.

“I’ve told other students about Catawba and they seem genuinely interested in our tribe,” says Funderburk. “It’s a shame that Catawba knowledge isn’t integrated into the education system.” The Catawba Indian Nation has lived alongside the Catawba River in present-day North and South Carolina for more than 6,000 years. The U.S. dramatically reduced the tribe’s land base from 144,000 acres to a 700-acre reservation located approximately 30 miles from Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Our reservation is less than 15 minutes away from the city,” says George-Warren. “And still most people don’t know who we are or where we live.”

Currently, George-Warren is working closely with Catawba parents and students to draft a letter to the newly-elected school board to encourage local schools to partner with the Catawba Indian Nation to incorporate Catawba culture and history into K-12 curriculum. George-Warren is hopeful that the school board will be receptive to this collaboration.

Native Youth and Culture Fund

Native Youth and Culture Fund

In 2018, First Nations awarded the Catawba Cultural Center a grant of $19,950, through the Native Youth and Culture Fund, to launch a fellowship program to develop the cultural and leadership skills of five Catawba youth. Through this program, Catawba youth are mentored by accomplished traditional artists in their area of interest and later teach their skills to Catawba youth participating in summer programs. Carpenter and Funderburk are among the first cohort of fellows.

“I am really, really proud of Lauren and Paiton for taking a stand so other students won’t have to go through the same thing,” said George-Warren.

Both Carpenter and Funderburk will graduate high school this spring and head to college in the fall. Carpenter, a Dreamstarter for Running Strong, has her sights set on medical school to become a cardiologist, and Funderburk intends to pursue a master’s degree in wildlife conservation. However, before both students embark on this new adventure, they will spend the summer mentoring Catawba youth ages 5-12, thereby inspiring and empowering a new generation of culturally-conscious leaders.

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Communications Officer

Lakota Artists Boost Economy, Community & Cultural Traditions on Pine Ridge

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For the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce (PRACC), the goal is to bolster the local economy and improve the quality of life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This summer, with the help of funding from First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), PRACC discovered the powerful role art can play in this economic development, while bringing people together and keeping Lakota traditions alive.

An Opportunity to Market

The Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce opened its doors in 2000 to support local businesses and increase tourism to South Dakota and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In support of this work, in 2009, PRACC also opened a Visitors Center and set out to decorate the space with displays and pieces by local artists.

PRACC Executive Director Ivan Sorbel says the Visitors Center now looks like an art gallery, but it doesn’t function as a storefront – a distinction that is key to PRACC’s commitment to driving the Pine Ridge economy.

“We don’t want to be in competition with the artists,” Ivan says, explaining that the job of the chamber is to promote local businesses, and not the chamber itself. “We purchased the local artwork so artists would get the sale. Then, when interested visitors come in, we connect them with the artists who handle the purchase on their end.”

Throughout the years, Ivan says PRACC has continued to think of channels like this that would attract visitors and boost economic development. In 2017, it conceived the idea of an artists-in-residence program.

NAI-Logo_Final-500pxWith funding from First Nations’ Native Arts Initiative, PRACC implemented the program that would bring 12 Native artists onsite to work and display their art at the Visitors Center. Providing each artist with a week-long session throughout the summer of 2018, the program provided the opportunity to not only market and sell their work, but also talk about their art, background, and perspectives on the creative process. It was a quality experience for the artists and for the visitors.

“It’s one thing to see art hanging on the wall,” explains Ivan. “But it’s another thing to actually speak to the artist who created the piece. It enlightened a lot of people.”

An Economy Builder

Showcased art included buffalo-horn sculpting, stone work, beadwork, leatherwork, sewing and art and hide painting, and artists were able to sell and commission pieces on the spot. With the help of the grant, PRACC covered artists’ travel costs as well as expenses surrounding venue space, marketing and promotion.

This created huge visibility for artists who would normally sell only from home studios or online. And because many local artists depend on their art to support their families in an area of high unemployment, the opportunity to sell at the Visitor Center was that much more important.

Artist Warren “Guss” Yellow Hair, who specializes in rawhide and drum work, says the ability to make extra money through the program was valuable. “On the plains, we’re just developing an art market for artists,” he says. “This program provided a way to not only share our art, but to meet everyday costs. That was huge.”

In addition, by having artists interact with visitors and tell their stories the artists-in-residence program provided a tourist attraction, which is critical to the Pine Ridge economy.

“Today’s tourist is looking for a meaningful experience,” explains Ivan. “Giving them the ability to hear about what’s going on in our area has real potential. They like to learn, and that’s good for sharing our Lakota culture and keeping it alive and relevant.”

Impact Beyond Art

In implementing the project, PRACC soon learned how the benefits of art transcended the actual artistic work. It indeed promoted artists’ businesses and the economic development of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It also served as a means of collaboration and camaraderie.

“Art is a strong portion of the Lakota culture,” says Ivan. “Beyond the art itself is the process involved in teaching it, passing it down, and sharing tradition. We only had 12 artists, but it made a big impact.”

The project also had a nurturing component in that it partnered each exhibiting artist with a young “emerging artist.” These were new artists who were just starting their craft or who needed more experience in pricing, displaying, public relations and selling.

One of the emerging artists was Guss’ daughter Tianna, a full-time student pursuing a career in Lakota arts who specializes in the women’s art form, parflesh.

Black Hills Art MarketTianna says she is grateful to PRACC and the opportunity to show her work with other artists. Tianna not only worked alongside her father during the project, she also won the 13th spot in the artists-in-residence program, awarding her a one-week session to work and display on her own at the Visitors Center. In addition, she was given the opportunity to present at the Rural America Initiative’s Black Hills Winter American Indian Art Market (see linked video) in Rapid City, South Dakota, on Nov. 24, 2018.

This teaching aspect of the program was beneficial to all the young artists like Tianna. It also fulfilled a key component of the grant objective in that it helped facilitate the “steady intergenerational transference of traditional artistic knowledge in their communities.”

Next Steps

The Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce was established to boost the Pine Ridge economy and improve the livelihoods of the people who live there. It did not define itself as a proponent of artists and Native arts. However, Ivan says, the grant from First Nations let them see the power of art in their community.

“Our job is to foster economic development, and tourism is the number two industry in South Dakota,” says Ivan. “Now the program has laid the groundwork to pursue new opportunities for art as an economic driver.”

He says First Nations helped PRACC understand how to dig deeper with the artist community and engage tourism. “It helped us open our eyes to what is possible. What can we build on? And what can expand and increase?

“The structure of the grant is focused on art,” he says. “But economics was a byproduct. The grant helped us marry those two together.”

With the artists-in-residence program wrapping up for the summer of 2018, Ivan, Guss and Tianna are hopeful that the program can continue. They consider it a success, and PRACC envisions new possibilities as the program gains momentum. Initial thoughts for the future include opportunities in performing arts, as there are many Native singers, dancers and storytellers in the community, as well as visitor workshops where tourists can have that hands-on experience of creating art themselves.

In the meantime, art continues to be showcased at PRACC, and every visitor who comes through the doors sees this rich asset of the Lakota culture. As it improves families’ livelihoods and contributes to the economy of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Lakota art lives on, connecting people and keeping Lakota traditions alive.

To learn more about the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce and the Artist in Residence Program, visit

By Amy Jakober

Native American Farm-to-School Resource Guide Available

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First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) recently published the Native Farm-to-School Resource Guide, a comprehensive manual for planning and implementing farm-to-school programs in Native American communities. Increasingly, Native farm-to-school programs have become an important way to introduce traditional foods and practices into curriculum, as well as to promote Native health, self-reliance and sustainability.

Farm-to-school is the common phrase for programs and activities designed to incorporate local foods into school systems to better educate students about nutrition, agriculture and culinary arts. These programs typically include hands-on, experiential learning activities that strengthen the connection between students, farmers and the community. Similarly, Native farm-to-school programs introduce traditional, locally-produced foods into school systems to improve student nutrition and increase knowledge of traditional foods, languages and ceremonies.

Additionally, Native farm-to-school programs can boost tribal economies, as many of these locally-produced food items can be purchased and utilized in school lunch programs.

The Native Farm-to-School Resource Guide was developed by identifying existing Native and non-Native farm-to-school programs and analyzing best practices, lessons learned, biggest challenges and case study examples of programs that achieved high-level impact and long-term sustainability. The result is a process guide for planning Native farm-to-school programs as well as a guide for tribal officials to engage their leadership and create buy-in for the farm-to-school process.

“The Native Farm-to-School Resource Guide is a necessary resource for communities striving to educate youth and community members on healthy, traditional agricultural practices,” said A-dae Romero-Briones, First Nations’ Director of Programs for Native Agriculture and Food Systems. “Creating a community-driven food system that engages both youth and elders increases tribal agricultural sovereignty. These efforts lead to increases in overall community health through improved knowledge and awareness of agriculture, increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the hands-on learning that supports physical well-being.”

NAFSI-new Graphic 500pxThe guide was produced under First Nations’ Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI), which began in 2002 to support Native communities building economic development through sustainable food systems that improve health and nutrition, strengthen food security, create food-related businesses and increase control of Native agriculture and food systems. In particular, the guide was an outgrowth of a grant First Nations received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach aimed at training Native farmers and ranchers to increase their successful participation in USDA programs and build their capacity to manage agriculture and food-system operations. One of the outcomes included creating a Native farm-to-school development training as a supplemental effort to engage more Native communities in the farm-to-school movement.

The Native Farm-to-School Resource Guide is available as a free download from (Please note that if you don’t already have one, you will need to create a free online account to download the report. That account will give you access to many other free resources and materials in the First Nations Knowledge Center.)

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