A 30-Year Journey to Bring Back Bison

76-year-old Charles “Red” Gates says he often gets the credit for getting bison into the food packages, but he’s quick to assert that it was a team effort.

76-year-old Charles “Red” Gates says he often gets the credit for getting bison into the food packages, but he’s quick to assert that it was a team effort.

When a storm comes in, the powerful buffalo can be seen facing the wind – resilient and steadfast in its strength. In much the same way, Charles “Red” Gates and his collaborators and partners throughout Indian Country have stood strong in their own resolve. Throughout a journey lasting over 30 years, they have led the return of buffalo to their nutrition and economy and have made a strong and lasting foothold toward food sovereignty for Native communities everywhere, despite the many storms before them.

Starting out

Gates was hired by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota and South Dakota as a bookkeeper in 1969 and through the years has held many positions in finance, planning and grant writing. In 1982, he became Standing Rock’s Director of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), a national program created in response to the Food Stamp Act of 1976. Gates explains that the Act mandated the provision of food stamps for low-income families nationwide. The bad news: These stamps weren’t meant for use on Indian Reservations, as they were only good at select stores. For tribes in rural areas like North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, and for those on the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, which spreads across 2.5 million acres, this meant hours of travel to the nearest food source.

In response, several tribes approached Congress, explaining how the Act violated treaties and did not work for Native people. Congress agreed and redrafted the Food Stamp Act of 1977, reinstating the commodity program for reservations. Prior to this law, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was provided rationed food pursuant to the treaties.

While this was a battle won for Indian Country, the winning prize had its downsides. The commodities were delivered to reservations, but internal systems of distribution were still needed. Food packages were based on income and not family size, so supplies rarely lasted the full month. And perhaps the direst aspect was that package contents were based on surplus items – the remaining foods available after demand elsewhere were met. This meant canned foods, foods of the lowest quality, and meats from surplus animals and not the prime cuts.

The result over time: Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

“When you hear people talk about poor health outcomes in Native communities, it’s attributed to these packages,” says Gates. “These rations introduced us to the White Man’s food.”

Indeed, in the packages regularly were canned pork, canned chicken, canned beef, flour, and lard. For the people of Standing Rock what was missing was fruits, vegetables, and fresh meat, specifically bison. “We were the Buffalo Nation – our reliance was on the buffalo,” he says.

A battle before them

Gates explains that he himself was in fact 10 years old when he saw his first buffalo. Still, when he took the position as FDPIR Director for the Tribe, he knew the packages were delivering trouble.

“It was all based on the surplus market,” he says. “When things weren’t going well, we got a surplus. If there was a shortage elsewhere, they would take it away. It was constantly changing. It was never growing, and it for sure wasn’t healthy.”

In 1989, he received an invitation to an organizing meeting for Oklahoma and New Mexico  Tribes, who were coming together to discuss the commodity program for their regions. Gates attended the meeting, in which the National Association of FDPIR was formed, and Gates was elected the alternate VP for the Mountain Plains Region. He took over as VP a year later when the elected VP stepped down.

Meanwhile, back at Standing Rock, he continued to see the injustices of the monthly packages. He says one day he was walking by the kitchen when his wife was preparing the canned meats. He saw the fat and white tissue and blood vessels in the pot. “I asked, ‘what’s that?’ and she said, ‘This is what it looks like, this is what I throw away. The rest, I cook off, which ends up being half the can.’”

By the late 1980s, there was growing concern nationwide about hunger, especially for Indian Reservations. A Hunger Relief Committee was formed, which ultimately led to the Mickey Leland Memorial Domestic Hunger Relief Act of 1990. In reviewing the legislation, Congress chose Standing Rock for an on-site hearing. Here, Gates took the opportunity to stage the opening of one of the cans of meat in front of Congressmen, the press, inspectors, and investigators.

“‘What’s that smell?’ they asked me,” says Gates. Indeed, under the pure fat cap, there were blood vessels, white tissues between muscles, and a bad odor. “Sometimes there are bones, but not today, I told them,” Gates says.

He says one congressman said, “I would not feed that to my dog.” And three more people ran out of the door and vomited.

A close-up on Red’s computer is always a reminder of the importance and power of the Buffalo.

A close-up on Red’s computer is always a reminder of the importance and power of the Buffalo.

Roadblocks and after roadblocks

Certainly, the presentation was eye-opening for Congress. And it led to slow and gradual improvements that would one day elevate the FDPIR. Still, getting there was not without challenges and Gates says he was “ready for a long fight.”

Some opposition came from the Tribe itself. Gate says some people didn’t want to call further attention to the issue because they feared the government would retaliate. Some reporters ran headlines proclaiming “Indians complain about free food.”

On the outside, Congress called for immediate study and investigation of the FDPIR foods, but there remained evaluators who believed the canned meat would be good if you just hid it under some barbecue sauce. Gates was asked to speak at follow-up meetings but was told not to bring up the canned meat issue.

Despite this storm, he and his colleagues in the NAFDPIR persisted. Initial successes included cleaning up the canned meats and introducing ground beef, fruits, and vegetables into the packages. But as the battle wore on other challenges continued to arise, and when Gates was ultimately able to introduce the idea of buffalo, the laundry list of opposition continued:

  • Did they have the freezer space to accommodate ground beef, let alone buffalo? “They treated us like we didn’t even know what freezers were,” he says.
  • How would Tribes accommodate for the shorter shelf life? Because bison is leaner than beef, were tribes prepared to store and cook it properly?
  • How much was the actual surplus of buffalo when the national demand was increasingly growing?
  • And finally, what about the bison itself? Gates and his colleagues were told that the food packages could contain meat only from domesticated animals. Buffalo, they said, was not a domestic animal and could not be considered a food source.

Through years of questions and challenges like these, Gates stood strong. And finally, in 1996, buffalo was incorporated into the FDPIR food packages at Standing Rock.

Red says he owns many pieces of art reflecting the buffalo. One favorite is this metal buffalo skull sculpture created by Red’s son Steve.

Red says he owns many pieces of art reflecting the buffalo. One favorite is this metal buffalo skull sculpture created by Red’s son Steve.

 Bison, at last

It was certainly a win. Standing Rock stood up to federal regulations and buffalo was returned to their Native diets. But through the next 15 years, the landscape of FDPIR and bison would continue to evolve. There were ongoing challenges surrounding Native versus non-Native ranchers. What were ranchers feeding the bison, and were Native communities getting the prime meat or just the “trim”? Were the slaughterhouses approved by the government and did they have humane slaughtering practices? Were they Native-owned and, if not, did they honor every part of the sacred buffalo?

Through it all, Gates kept up his leadership role with FDPIR. And by then, he had become the president and would go on to serve three additional terms. He continued to advocate for the health and nutrition of his Tribe and for the permanency of buffalo in the Native food packages. He held firm through the politics of ranchers, outsiders, and supply and demand, while at the same time protecting herd populations and opening the minds and tastes of Standing Rock youth, who he says have grown up on McDonalds and Ramen Noodles.

Paving the path

Today, Gates is 76 years old. He has worked for the Tribe for 50 years. He has nine children, 48 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren. He remains active as a historian and on the board of the NAFDPIR. His story of returning buffalo to the Buffalo Nation is one he’s asked to tell repeatedly, and his work at Standing Rock and the FDPIR has created a blueprint for other Tribes seeking to incorporate their own Native foods, from blue cornmeal to salmon to wild rice. Further, it has instigated new models like the Tribal Leaders Workgroup, which is helping guide the 2019 Farm Bill and other legislation.

“We created a domino effect,” he says. “Now it seems like the whole nation is listening to us.”

Indeed, food sovereignty is a growing topic in Indian Country, and its roots date back to before it was even considered a term. Returning bison to the Buffalo Nation represents some of the earliest progress in restoring Native foods, creating independence, and improving health outcomes. For Native communities, it is a testament to the feats that can be accomplished through funding, collaboration, and vision. For First Nations, it is a call for further investments in Native food sovereignty. It is a message to funders that progress happens, but more help is always needed to help other Native communities up against similar battles.

And for Gates, the return of bison is the achievement of a personal mission. “People think I’m something I’m not,” he says. “But I’m just the person who took the initiative. It’s been a long journey involving a lot of different people.” And today, still standing strong with Standing Rock, together, they are facing the next storm.

By Amy Jakober







Passing Down Language by Teaching the Teachers

The tenacious teachers of the Akwesasne Freedom School in Hogansburg, New York.

The tenacious teachers of the Akwesasne Freedom School in Hogansburg, New York.

At the Akwesasne Freedom School (AFS), the ideal teachers are home-grown – cultivated from the Akwesasne community, fluent in the Mohawk language, and trained to teach in the way the Mohawk learn best. Now, through a Teacher Training program, funded by a First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) Native Language Immersion Initiative grant, the school is identifying these new teachers, building their curriculum, and creating new tools to improve the learning environment and reach more students.

About Akwesasne

The Akwesasne Freedom School is a community-based educational institution located on the Kanien’keháka Territory of Akwesasne in New York. It was formed in 1979 when the Kanien’keha language and culture had been pushed to near extinction.

At that time, there was community conflict as a result of confrontations with the state over the state’s plans to cut trees to build fencing around the Native area without prior consultation or approval from landowners. The conflict escalated into a standoff between the state and the traditional Longhouse people of Akwesasne for several months, with families staying inside of an encampment. Then, when it came time for children to return to school in September, the families inside the encampment were harassed and bullied by others in the school system, and did not want to return to the state school. Segregation further alienated Mohawk children with public school buses refusing to pass blockades onto the Reservation.

Community parents, recognizing how traditional language and culture were being rapidly extinguished, set out to change things by creating a school behind the blockades dedicated to serving Mohawk students. Konwanakhtotha Sargent, Executive Director of the Friends of the Akwesasne Freedom School, explains that many of the parents were the products of Indian Boarding Schools, growing up in the days of the “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” approach. Instead, the parents knew the importance of their identity, and intentionally flipped the Carlisle adage to “Save the Indian.”

The school started with a few students in a few grades, incorporating a Waldorf-like educational model, a curriculum found to be most in line with the Mohawk ways of learning. In 1985, it adopted a total immersion program. Building on the grassroots movement of Language and Cultural Revitalization, the classes expanded up to fourth grade and gradually to 10th grade.

Today the school has 12 teachers and two office personnel, and teaches 72 students in grades pre-K to eighth in 1,200 hours per year of immersion classes. There are an additional 10 toddlers in the school’s Language Nest, designed to reinstate the Mohawk Language as a child’s first language. The school’s goal is to rebuild the Mohawk Nation by focusing on young people. In the words of Akwesasne Elder Tom Porter, “The time will come when the grandchildren will speak to the whole world. It is hoped that through AFS, the grandchildren will have something significant to say.”

Based on this, everything taught in school is rooted in the language. Kanien’keha is taught thematically, through speaking, reading, writing, singing, dancing and participating in traditional cultural practices such as basket-making, beadwork, leatherwork, hunting and ceremonies. Parents are encouraged to speak the language in the home as much as possible.

Throughout all the classes, students learn their role now and in the future as educators and leaders in the community. They are taught proper behavior, respect, and understanding of the distinct culture of the Mohawk people. The main goal of the Akwesasne Freedom School is not to build good students but to nurture good people, says Sargent.

“Beautifully written and respectfully told,... a much-needed examination of one Indigenous community’s pathbreaking efforts to exercise educational sovereignty." -- Teresa L. McCarty

“Beautifully written and respectfully told,… a much-needed examination of one Indigenous community’s pathbreaking efforts to exercise educational sovereignty.” — Teresa L. McCarty

Not just any teachers

Carrying out this curriculum has called for skilled teachers who are first and foremost fluent in the Mohawk language. In the beginning, Sargent explains, classes were taught by parents who were first-language speakers. “They were mothers; they had problem-solving skills, which made them able to teach multiple subjects at once, weaving in culture and language.”

As the school grew, more teachers like this were needed. Yet, they couldn’t just hire teachers from anywhere and train them to teach in the Mohawk way. Instead, what AFS required was just the opposite: Fluent speakers who grew up Mohawk and who could be taught to teach. “We have to grow our own,” says Sargent.

At the same time, they knew they could no longer throw their new teachers into the classroom and say, “you’re a teacher, now teach,” explains Sargent. Many of the newer teachers, while fluent in the language, lacked classroom experience. As a result, when they would get flustered or not know how to teach in the language, they would revert to English, taking away from the full immersion approach. Once students heard English in the classroom, it became more and more acceptable for teachers and students to use it.

What they needed were standardized materials, curriculum and manuals to guide the Native speakers in how to manage a classroom and best connect with students in Kanien‘keha. That’s where funding from First Nations and the new project – the Teacher Training Program – was set in motion.

Resources to empower, tools to succeed

The new training program is designed to give new and current teachers the skills to create an effective and efficient Mohawk learning environment. The program draws from the dwindling pool of fluent-speaking individuals identified by the school and the community and gives them the tools to teach “our ways,” while also learning classroom preparedness, time management, lesson planning and classroom management. Through the project, 10 teachers will be trained on more than 14 AFS curriculum units. In addition, an orientation manual will be developed to both document processes and approaches and train future teachers after the initial 10.

Through the project, Sargent hopes the AFS can provide the tools to help ease their new teachers into carrying out their roles and responsibilities with the school and give them the resources they need to keep the language strong and keep the kids learning.

Meeting a need

Sargent asserts that the need for more Mohawk teachers is growing, in line with the demand for more AFS offerings. She says the demand stems from the increasing recognition of the importance of the Mohawk language and culture throughout all the Mohawk communities.

“When I was growing up, we were taught to be ashamed of who we were,” Sargent says. This lack of pride contributed to low self-esteem, partying and drug abuse. But people are now realizing how these outcomes can be shifted when there is a greater connection to culture and language.

“I think people are seeing the importance of knowing who we are,” says Sargent. “If you don’t know where you belong, it’s hard to find that community. But at AFS, they can. What they get is a pride in their identity, which has a direct effect on their behavior and opportunities.

“Bad behavior can be the norm at the public school,” says Sargent. “But our kids are very respectful. Others have told us they can tell if a child is from the Freedom School just by the way they act.”

Sargent asserts that changing times calls for changing strategies, and their school is having success not only bolstering a threatened language, but also fostering a pride in the Mohawk culture and “saving the Indian” for a brighter future. Future plans include a capital campaign for a new building, streamlining curricula, and more opportunities to reach parents and students. For now, AFS rejoices in the progress they’ve made since 1979. “We created that tipping point for the rest of the community to embrace our culture,” she says. “I think that the school has been responsible for that.”

By Amy Jakober

Sustaining Shellfish for the S’Klallam People as a Matter of Policy

Port Gamble S’Klallam biologist Julianna Sullivan evaluates shellfish growth along the protected beaches.

Port Gamble S’Klallam biologist Julianna Sullivan evaluates shellfish growth along the protected beaches.

On the Port Gamble S’Klallam Reservation, shellfish and other aquatic life are part of the economy, nutrition, identity, and culture of the S’Klallam people. Unfortunately, though, threats to these resources from environmental impacts, over-harvesting, and increases in population have affected access.

This is the story of how this First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) grantee, through support made possible through the Policy Innovation Fund (developed jointly by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the American Heart Association and its Voices for Healthy Kids initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation)  is advancing research in shellfish preservation and creating new Tribal policy to protect the health and future of the S’Klallam people.

Shellfish and sustainability

With a reservation located on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe has about 1,300 enrolled members, with more than 1,100 living on the reservation. Their land base includes 1,700 acres held in trust by the federal government.

Historically, the S’Klallam were called the Nux Sklai Yem, meaning “Strong People.” An Indigenous Peoples of the Northwest coast, they have lived as far west as the Hoko River, up north into the Straits of Juan de Fuce, south into the Olympic Mountains, and throughout the Puget Sound.

As it has been throughout S’Klallam history, shellfish remains an important source of food and income, as well as a key part of Tribal gatherings, ceremonies, and culture. Moreover, shellfish—rich in calcium, iron, and vitamins—are a part of a S’Klallam traditional diet, which the Tribe encourages its members to partake in as a part of a healthy lifestyle.

A way of life threatened

Julianna Sullivan, a biologist with the Natural Resources Department of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, focuses her work on habitat and resource protection. She says that fish and shellfish—those invaluable Native resources—have prevailed over generations, despite the obstacles continually put before them, most of which began with the arrival of European settlers hundreds of years ago.

The history of the Tribe’s efforts to protect its culture and traditions around fishing and shellfish harvesting span generations: In 1855, the Treaty of Point No Point was signed. While this ceded tribal land to the U.S. government, the treaties reserved tribes’ pre-existing rights, including the right to harvest fish and shellfish at “Usual and Accustomed grounds and stations.” Yet, as the years and decades passed, tribes found their Treaty Rights increasingly marginalized, as native species fell prey to over-harvesting by state, commercial, sport, and other non-Indian fishermen.

This infringement of tribes’ Treaty Rights eventually ended up in the courts. In 1974, a landmark decision in United States v. Washington (more commonly known as The Boldt Decision, named for the judge who presided over the case) reaffirmed the rights of Washington State tribes to fish in their Usual and Accustomed Treaty Rights areas. Judge Boldt interpreted language in the treaties—“in common with”—to mean that tribes had a right to half of the harvestable catch and to act as co-managers of salmon and other fish stocks in partnership with state agencies.

In 1994, Federal Court Judge Edward Rafeedie ruled that the provisions of The Boldt Decision extended to shellfish. This decision also maintained that all public and private tidelands within the case area can be subject to Treaty harvest, except for artificially created beds set aside specifically for non-Indian cultivation purposes.

While these rulings paved the way for tribes, including the Port Gamble S’Klallam, to better protect and sustain the natural resources that have always been a part of their way of life, there are now new challenges to face, especially those related to the impacts of climate change on coastal environments. Rising sea levels, habitat degradation, ocean acidification, and toxic algal blooms are all regular and reoccurring issues that Tribal fisheries are forced to contend with. Modern development also plays a role: stormwater runoff from compacted soils and impervious surfaces deliver pathogens and toxins into delicate aquatic ecosystems.

The floating FLUPSY is a floating raft-like structure that provides for an “all-you-can-eat buffet,” for the growing oysters.

The floating FLUPSY is a floating raft-like structure that provides for an “all-you-can-eat buffet,” for the growing oysters.

Projects to preserve and protect

The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe recognizes that they must continually be their own best advocate to ensure that resources and rights are protected for generations to come. To this end, the tribe has a rigorous Natural Resources research and monitoring program, which includes the ongoing creation of projects designed to protect and sustain fish, shellfish, and their respective habitats.

One such recent project involves the Tribe purchasing two Floating Upweller Systems, otherwise known as FLUPSYs. These stationary raft-like structures house shellfish seed and allow them to grow rapidly in ideal conditions before being transferred to protected beaches to enhance existing shellfish stocks.

“Projects like the FLUPSYs allow us to investigate and employ a variety of aquaculture technologies to enhance populations of various species. We’re proud of the success we’ve seen,” says Sullivan.

While this work is promising, sustaining shellfish populations requires not only these types of culturing and research activities, but also minimizing the impacts caused by overharvesting and climate change.

“We are working to take sustainable actions to protect the aquaculture and existing fish and shellfish populations. Policy plays a big role in these efforts,” explains Sullivan.

A policy for change

First Nations’ “Fertile Ground Advocacy Campaign” is a program that supports Native-led advocacy efforts to advance new policies and innovative policymaking approaches that benefit Native American nutrition and health. Through this program, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Foundation on behalf of the Tribe received funding for the “S’Klallam Shellfish Grow-Out Expansion Project.”

The S’Klallam Shellfish Grow-Out Expansion Project will enable the Tribe to develop and implement an aquaculture policy that will improve the health and sustainability of shellfish while enhancing education and outreach to the community.

“The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe is lucky to have many species of clams, oysters, geoduck, crab, shrimp, and salmon in their Usual and Accustomed area, but the threat to these species is real,” says Hannah Jones, development associate for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Foundation. “There is a need for environmental, economic, and sustainability policy surrounding the Tribe’s precious food resources.”

According to Sullivan, the policy being developed will establish a process wherein proposed aquaculture projects can be evaluated through the Tribe’s various advisory groups with objectives that include:

• Maintenance, enhancement, and accessibility of aquatic resources to Tribal members.
• Limiting competition between aquaculture activities and wild harvest.
• Protection of and limiting access to wild harvest aquatic resources.
• Improving the economic sustainability of shellfish harvesting for Tribal members.
• Creation of educational opportunities that encourage healthy living, and promote cultural continuity and ecosystem health.
• Promotion of projects that improve ecosystem health while protecting the diversity of native species.

Sullivan says that created policies strive to always match the culture of the community and the mission of the Tribe, which is, in part, to “ensure the health, welfare, and economic success of a vibrant community through education, economic development, preservation and protection of a rich culture, traditions, language, homelands, and natural resources.”

Much of the policy work at the heart of the S’Klallam Shellfish Grow-Out Expansion Project focuses on community outreach and education. For example, funds from the First Nations’ grant will be used for in-the-field and classroom-based education coursework on shellfish biology, waterway health, and the importance of food sovereignty. Sullivan stresses that these teachings are core to helping protect and preserve the S’Klallam way of life.

The S’Klallam people follow a saying: “When the tide is out, the table is set.” According to Sullivan, “This means that the whole tribe recognizes when there is someone out collecting—it’s part of the S’Klallam culture and identity, and it’s a significant element in the health and culture of the S’Klallam people.”

With the new technology, oysters can grow exponentially in size, going from tiny specks to the size of a quarter in just a few weeks.

With the new technology, oysters can grow exponentially in size, going from tiny specks to the size of a quarter in just a few weeks.

The S’Klallam Shellfish Grow-Out Expansion Project represents progress in Tribal empowerment and creates an effective framework for the future. Jones says she is excited about this work and grateful for the support of First Nations in enabling the Port Gamble S’Klallam Foundation to continue to work in food sovereignty through policy building.

“This is work that will affect the way the Tribe sustains, harvests, and addresses threats to a resource my S’Klallam children have grown up on,” Jones says. “Now, the resource may very well continue to be around for my grandchildren because of aquaculture policy.”

Indeed, thanks to the innovative work of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, the table will continue to be set, and a Strong People will stay forever strong.

By Amy Jakober

2019 Food Sovereignty Summit Brings Indigenous Food Thought Leaders Together

One of Oneida Nation's many food-related businesses.

One of Oneida Nation’s many food-related businesses.

The 2019 Food Sovereignty Summit held at the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, September 23-26, brought together Native food practitioners to share, collaborate and build healthy food systems within Native American communities. First Nations Development Institute and the Oneida Nation have partnered to create the national forum for food sovereignty since 2013.

Oneida’s Community Integrated Food System

Years ago, Oneida’s community members and staff decided to pursue grants and expand their farming and food production operations. They worked to develop a model that would become Oneida’s Community Integrated Food System. Through a process, they mapped and aligned their existing agricultural and food assets to create a system that is more holistic and representative of their vision for a healthy community.

The elements of their food system are a combination of for-profit business, tribal programs, local non-profits, and individual community members. They include the Oneida Nation Farm, a commercial farm with buffalo and cattle; Oneida Nation Orchard; the Tsyunhehkwa Farm, which specializes in reintroducing traditional foods into the community and specializes in growing white corn; and the Oneida Cannery, which processes those foods and assists community members with preservation methods through traditional and conventional teachings. Many of the Nation’s food products are available at the Oneida Market; a natural health store that sources native and local foods and supports the Oneida’s youth, elder, and community programming. Ohe∙láku, a newly established White Corn Co-op, Oneida Emergency Food Pantry, aquaponics, project and Oneida Farmers Market are also in the mix.

Giving the Food Sovereignty Summit attendees the opportunity to tour Oneida’s Community Integrated Food System has always been an anchor for the event. To see how agricultural production with cultural and sustainable practices are integrated into the community through food outlets is an inspiring model to experience and sets the backdrop for the next three days of learning and conversation.

“We want to demonstrate transferable knowledge,” said Joanie Buckley the Division Director of Internal Support Services at Oneida Nation. “We want to show that it is possible to create and impact a local food economy while encouraging a healthy community mindset that centers around our food.”

An Indigenous learning community

Over the course of the next three days, the Food Sovereignty Summit provided multiple presentations, sessions, and workshops that advanced understanding and propelled learning. Tehassi Hill, chairman of the Oneida Nation, and Michael Roberts, president, and CEO of First Nations, kicked off the events with words of encouragement, which were followed by some words of wisdom from Ross John, Sr., Counselor of the Seneca Nation of Indians: “We left out our communities and that’s what’s important to this farming and growing. It takes it back to individuals who are empowered again to do something. To help our communities. To heal our families. You don’t need my expertise, you don’t need me to tell you how to do it, you need to figure it out for yourself. Let’s rebuild those fires. That’s our family. Our symbolism is what the rest of the world needs to understand again.”

First Nations Director of Native Agriculture and Food Systems, A-dae Romero- Briones, hosted a sneak peek of the film, GATHER, co-produced by First Nations and directed by Sanjay Rawal. GATHER follows four Native food providers as they pursue Indigenous food development and food sovereignty in their communities. After the presentation, three stars of the film shared their experiences pursuing food sovereignty. The film is scheduled for release in January 2020 and will be made available for community screenings throughout Indian Country. “I appreciate hearing about how storytelling brings up issues of everyday life on the reservations,” said one attendee. “How our experiences are valuable. The stories have rich lessons about food sovereignty.”

A-dae Romero-Briones, Kim Baca, Sanjay Rawal, Tessa Cassadore and niece discuss GATHER.

A-dae Romero-Briones, Kim Baca, Sanjay Rawal, Tessa Cassadore and niece discuss GATHER.

Three hundred and fifty attendees stayed together for the morning sessions to explore the expansive and time-sensitive topics of Thriving Tribal Food Systems, to Tribal Sovereignty and Land Rights, The Farm Bill, Food Systems Funders, Strengthening Climate Resiliency on Tribal Lands, and Future Generations a session filled with passion and insight coming from young food systems leaders.

“Amazing things happen when you get practitioners in conversations with one another,” noted Romero-Briones. “There are synergies amplified and these conversations reflect the core of First Nations—that indigenous people have the ability to create solutions that are beyond what we can create alone or apart.”

During the afternoons, folks chose from a variety of small group breakout sessions led by knowledge keepers in their related fields. The range of sessions was vast, from the technical skill building like Government Grant Applications, Food Codes, Business Plan Development, and Legal Cases, to the more contextual sessions such as First Foods, Hemp, Stewardship and Conservation, and Rural Broadband Access, and Indigenous Food System Models. “I appreciated presenters sharing challenges and successes,” said one attendee.

Sharing a taste of where we are from

Evenings were filled with an abundance of food and festivity. The I-Collective a group of Indigenous chefs, herbalists, seed and knowledge keepers prepared a Culinary Showcase of Traditional Foods for all to enjoy. The first-time all-woman cast of Kristina Stanley, Twila Cassadore, Britt Reed, Hillel Echo-Hawk and Tashia Hart amazed the people with their home inspired recipes from their Chippewa, Apache, Choctaw, Pawnee, Athabaskan, and Anishinaabe roots. “I want to express gratitude for everyone working in the Native food sovereignty community. I love this second family of mine so much!” shared Chef Stanley.

“We often hear about the calamities of the world daily in social media and it can cause anxiety. The Food Summit reminds us that we have the tools to heal our community and world—it’s a matter of putting those tools into practice,” shared Romero-Briones.

Under the stars at Amelia Cornelius Culture Park, everyone gathered for the Oneida Social. The evening started with a beautiful seed exchange where seed keepers brought seeds from their local community to tell seed stories and exchange seed with others. Then, Ohe∙láku, the White Corn Growers Co-Op, Oneida families and community members presented a meal. Guests feasted on corn soup, wild rice with buffalo roast, and strawberry drink. After dinner, Oneida smoke dancers introduced a visitor dance, where visitors selected from the audience partnered with local dancers. Dancing continued late into the night and ended with a dance-off performance between the top smoke dancers.

Oneida Social under the stars (Eliza Skenadore)

Oneida Social under the stars (Eliza Skenadore)

Planting seeds for the future

The summit culminated with remarks by host Tehassi Hill, Oneida Nation Chairman and Mark Charles, Native activist and thought leader, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed common memory must be created,” implored Charles drawing from his Dine’ teachings.

The Food Sovereignty Summit has been a place to rebuild our collective memory of food and continue to share the cumulative knowledge outward. “I’m thrilled! The engagement of the tribes was incredible,” shared Buckley.

“The future and success of the Food Sovereignty Summit is to see the emergence of local and regional food summits throughout Indian Country. There is not just one recipe for a healthy community.”

First Nations would like to thank the sponsors for Food Summit 2019: Agua Fund, Inc., Farm Aid, Land O’ Lakes, Inc., Natural Resources Conservation Service, NoVo Foundation, Oneida Nation, USDA, Otto Bremer Trust, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.

By First Nations staff

Podcasts Connect Youth for a Brighter Salish Future

Michelle Polasky and Isabella James discuss current events at Lummi for the pilot episode.

Michelle Polasky and Isabella James discuss current events at Lummi for the pilot episode.

It started over lunch at an ice cream parlor. From there it grew to a communications platform, a podcast series designed to unite generations on issues that, left ignored, could increase division and compromise the strength of the Salish culture. This is how one production company in Bellingham, Washington, is engaging youth and giving them a voice – and a microphone – to make a difference for the future.

Reaching today’s youth

The Lummi Nation is a self-governing nation within the United States and is the third largest Tribe in Washington State. Here, the Coast Salish People have a history built on art, fishing, language, and oral traditions. As in Native communities everywhere, there is an increasing need to keep their culture and ways of life alive.

But specific to the Lummi Indian Reservation, there is a disconnect among tribal members stemming from certain controversial issues in the community that can be largely attributed to the friction between the old ways of governing by family law and the colonially imposed system of governing by Tribal Council. The regulation of marijuana, changing laws, and the use and effectiveness of seasonal per capita payments are creating conflict among tribal members, a discontent that is being felt by this nation’s youth.

According to Children of the Setting Sun’s Michelle Polasky (age 20), there is not a lot of effective communication going on, and people are not always listening to each other. What has resulted is disengagement of the younger population, growing resentment, and a potential threat to the future and strength of the Coast Salish traditional lifeways.

Cover art depicts the creativity and culture behind the Youth Podcast Network.

Cover art depicts the creativity and culture behind the Youth Podcast Network.

Lending a voice

Children of the Setting Sun Productions is a multimedia, film, and theatre arts production company specializing in enlivening the rich history, legacies, stories, and traditions of the Salish People. They do this by using interviews and performance arts to share the “Lummi Family Tradition of Native Storytelling,” fulfilling their mission to create, share, and educate.

As such, the company was uniquely positioned to engage youth in a modern medium that would resonate with them – audio podcasts. Elli Smith, Youth Program Director and Development Administrator, sought funding through First Nations Development Institute’s Native Youth and Culture Fund to create a Youth Podcast Network. Polasky was brought on board as a youth advisor and podcast host, along with co-host and youth advisor Isabella James (age 24).

With the grant funding, Smith and Polasky both took part in First Nations’ professional development training, which set the stage for setting up and implementing the podcasts. From there, the grant made it possible for Children of the Setting Sun to invest in the research, resources, and equipment for production. Key to the project has been providing technical training, as well as teaching the appropriate cultural protocols that promote respect in the community and best share the language and Tribal stories.

In the works is a three-part series on Being Indigenous, featuring individual episodes on Reviving the Lummi Language, Healing, and Youth Indiginaity. These initial episodes are being produced and created by Polasky, James, and Smith in the studio as well as in the community, directly engaging multiple stakeholders.

Polasky shares on the Children of the Setting Sun website: “As a community, it is our responsibility and duty to come together as one and make important decisions that should only benefit all of us. In order to do that we must first listen to the people of the community for their thoughts and opinions, this includes everyone: the council, the fisherman, the elderly, the youth, and the children.” The organization also extends this responsibility to people in recovery.

Amplified impact

Polasky explains that through the podcasts they hope to give youth a voice to talk about important issues, and also reconnect them with the Lummi language and culture. “We want to inspire them,” she says.

She says this work is more important than ever because, even with such a large presence in Washington State, many people do not know of the Lummi Nation. Even within their shared city of Bellingham, “People still don’t know who we are.”

And where this is a diminished presence, there is diminished strength to draw from — strength that Lummi Youth need in defining their own self-value and future. Smith adds, “We’re aiming to change the perception of how others see the Lummi people outside the community. Through these productions, we can let them know that the first peoples of this land are still very much alive and that culture is rich in knowledge, love, and ingenuity.”

Moreover, this new project by Children of the Setting Sun is creating a more formalized mode of communication. Polasky explains that in the past, the voices of youth would be heard only on social media. It lacked the prominence and professionalism needed in an environment of community leaders and elders. Now, having an official podcast gives their voices more credence and elevates their role. The podcasts have also led to the creation of a Youth Advisory Council, which is further engaging teens in ways they can contribute and lead.

This is the story of what can happen when friends meet for ice cream, when conversations begin, and when people are given the opportunity to express themselves thoughtfully. Further it is the story of storytelling itself. Smith says that, as producers, they can bring music, imagery, and story together to tell a broad picture of humanity. “With film and podcasts, you can rise above the political issues,” she says. “You can bring people together above conflict and shine a spotlight to see what was and what could still be. That’s the power of art, for youth and for our future.”

The first episode of the Youth Podcast Network by Children of the Setting Sun Productions is available at https://www.facebook.com/ChildrenSSP/

Isabella and her baby Connor in the Children of the Setting Sun Production office recording on the Lummi language using the new equipment. Elli Smith adds, “Listen to the episode! Connor has a lot to say!"

Isabella and her baby Connor in the Children of the Setting Sun Production office recording on the Lummi language using the new equipment. Elli Smith adds, “Listen to the episode! Connor has a lot to say!”

By Amy Jakober

Language, Culture and Food Come Together at Lakota Waldorf School

Students learn to speak and understand the Lakota language through gardening, food preparation, and learning about traditional Lakota plants, sustainability, and ecology.

Students learn to speak and understand the Lakota language through gardening, food preparation, and learning about traditional Lakota plants, sustainability, and ecology.












If you’re a Lakota child born in South Dakota, you can now find a place to belong, where your culture and language are fostered, creating a Lakota identity that will help you thrive. This is possible thanks to the Lakota Waldorf School, formed over 26 years ago at a time when Lakota children never had such an option. Now, with its latest project funded through First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), the school is bringing culture and language to the understanding, production and awareness of food, strengthening Lakota identity and improving health outcomes.

The Need for Lakota Waldorf School

The Lakota Waldorf School serves the children of the Pine Ridge Reservation living in or near the town of Kyle and outlying districts. Isabel Stadnick, development director and one of the founders of the school, explains that children here are among the most vulnerable, disadvantaged children in the country. Poverty is high, and as a social determinant of health, it has resulted in epidemic proportions of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease on the Reservation. According to Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation, life expectancy is only 47 years for men and 52 years for women, and the teenage suicide rate is 150% higher than the U.S. national average.

While the causes for these statistics are broad and deep-rooted, one reason stems from the insufficient culturally appropriate education available to Lakota children, says Stadnick. Noting the high dropout rate of Lakota students, Stadnick, her husband Robert, and a group of parents saw that the local public schools were not designed for Native children and the way they best learn. In addition, Lakota identity was not fostered or encouraged. As a result of both, performance among Native children was lacking.
“We said, if something is not good, then you have to change it,” Stadnick explained. From there, the parents mobilized, and the concept of Lakota Waldorf School took hold.

Learning with Head, Hand, and Heart

Stadnick explains that the parent group was made up of individuals from education and the community, and together, they agreed that children of a different culture need a different curriculum. Curriculum must be understandable and must reflect the essence of the people. Further, the approach must strengthen children’s self-identity, which includes their culture, ceremonial practices and their language.
Knowing this, the parents set out to explore different approaches to education and the one that resonated was Waldorf.

“In public school, learning is linear. You learn one thing, then the next, in a subsequent fashion,” says Stadnick, “But in the Waldorf method, learning is circular and story based.”

Stadnick explains that Waldorf bases curriculum on the development of the child, focusing on three capacities: thinking, feeling, and doing. For example, in Waldorf schools, teaching facts, numbers and places might be done through a story. Then the students might participate in an activity, conveying that story through clay, paper mâché, or drawing. It becomes an experience that creates a feeling, which translates into greater learning.

“It is learning with head, hand, and heart,” added adds Stadnick. “It connects and involves the students in a deeper way. Here, they learn how to apply their newfound knowledge in real life, which gives them a higher success rate.”

Stadnick says that this approach is very much in line with the Lakota culture, and the story-telling technique is how Lakota elders pass down the heritage. Committed to the Waldorf curriculum, the parents first formed a Lakota kindergarten. From there, the group formed a 501(c)3, and now offers K-8 classes. Currently at capacity, the school has 46 students and is in the process of seeking funding for a larger school bus to be able to transport 60 plus students.

Through the Lakota Waldorf School, kids are given every opportunity to learn a strong cultural identity and reverence for the heritage.

Through the Lakota Waldorf School, kids are given every opportunity to learn a strong cultural identity and reverence for the heritage.

Immersed in Language, Enriched by Culture

More than a Waldorf-based school, the school is an educational resource that integrates Lakota culture with a large emphasis on language. This is where funding from First Nations has played an important role.

Core to the school’s design is Lakota language immersion. All children begin each day with a sacred Lakota verse. They learn vocabulary, numbers, and concepts by singing, reciting, and having interactive dialogue. Language is not a class here-and-there, but a full immersion process, in which children learn language the natural way — by ear and by speaking. By integrating the Waldorf approach with a focus on Lakota language, the school empowers Lakota children to create positive futures for themselves and their communities.

“We see one of the challenges that students have is low self-esteem and low self-confidence. So this is where we put a strong emphasis,” Stadnick commenteds.
Kids at Lakota Waldorf School are given every opportunity to learn a strong cultural identity and reverence for the heritage, acquire a solid foundation for Lakota language, and gain the academic, social, and practical skills to thrive as Native people.
“Culture and language are major components of self-esteem and self-advocacy,” says Stadnick. “Research has proven that children who grow up with a strong identity are more successful — in school, life and higher education.”

In 2019, the school received a First Nations grant through the Native Language Immersion Initiative, which aims to build the capacity of and directly support Native American language-immersion and culture-retention programs. With this funding the school will expand its current classroom language program and its school gardening program, teaching students how to speak and understand the Lakota language through gardening, food preparation, and learning about traditional Lakota plants, sustainability, and ecology.

This makes a valuable tool for experiential learning. As the project develops, students throughout the school are taking part in the classes, making use of a school garden, and hearing directly from Lakota-fluent elders and Lakota-learning teachers. Parents are being engaged as volunteers, and students are presenting their knowledge of Lakota words to the community, which raises awareness of Native plants, culture, and sustainable foods.

“Children learn easy and fast, and eating healthy meals is something we do every day,” she says.

Moreover, the students are learning through imagination and by doing. “We are surrounded by plants, but we cannot name them in Lakota,” she explains. “But through the project they can learn 10 new plants every month, and that’s something they can use every day.”

Further, Stadnick notes, “If you have an experience planting potatoes, and you learn the word for potatoes, right there you have a connection to it. That’s a piece of the language that lives on.”

While the project is just beginning, it is laying the groundwork for the future. Children are finding more opportunities to use the language, and the community is gaining a food source, and ultimately even a source of revenue, as food can be grown organically and then sold locally. And, in the long-term, it is hoped that the access to Native grown food can make a dent in the staggering diabetes and obesity rates that have plagued this community.
Using gardening, students learn language and culture through head, hand and heart.

Using gardening, students learn language and culture through head, hand and heart.

Creating the Future of Lakota

Stadnick acknowledges that the road ahead is a long one, but their work is a building block. Through the Language Expansion program, the school is focusing on involving parents, training more teachers, and increasing community involvement. The simple act of labeling a garden in the Lakota language is creating an opportunity to share, and every opportunity adds up as a strategy to retain the language and the culture.

“Waldorf is not a concept, it’s a tool to infuse a rich and very old culture into the future,”  Stadnick says. With the support of First Nations, this community is strengthening this resource, training more teachers, and finding more ways to create the best outcomes for Lakota children. “It’s the most important aspect. They need the identity and culture – just like they need food and love.”

By Amy Jakober

Finding a Voice and Making it Heard: Defending Native Rights on the Border

New construction at Three Rivers is considered the hub for the Jupiter Oil Pipeline running to Brownsville, Texas.

New construction at Three Rivers is considered the hub for the Jupiter Oil Pipeline running to Brownsville, Texas.












For the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas — on the border and in the pathway of “the wall” — the future is precarious. Not federally recognized as a tribe and threatened daily by the impact of the Texas Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) export terminal and associated pipelines, the Carrizo/Comecrudo is in a race to identify its villages, gain proper recognition, and form a voice to protect its rights and land. It is an uphill fight, but with a new project funded in part by First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), progress is being made.

The Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe works to protect the Garcia Pasture, a sacred site in the Rio Grande Valley that contains remains of ancestors and cultural artifacts from various nomadic tribes, including the Carrizo/Comecrudo. The need for protection abounds: The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are huge environmental implications. And moreover, the members and sacred aspects of the original pre-Columbian villages surrounding Garcia Pasture have been not only ignored, but not even identified. And although the Carrizo/Comecrudo is not the official holder of the site, they are taking a stand.

“We, as Native people, have a right to speak out for what has been happening,” says Tribal Chairman, historian, storyteller, and Keeper of the Lifeways Juan Mancias.

Mancias explains that it’s something their people have to do because the threats are so pervasive. Before and beyond battling the LNG terminals, the Tribe has fought for a stronghold in Texas. The Tribe has endured centuries of historical trauma and oppression. It is not federally recognized, so there is no federal funding. Its people have scattered, and some were forced into Mexico when the border was established. Pollutants from the sale of substandard coal to Mexico have jeopardized their natural resources and the quality of the air and water. Ancestors are buried on the land they can’t defend. And the health of the Rio Grande, the home of Carrizo/Comecrudo for generations, is at risk.

Now, with the help of a First Nations Broad Reach Grant, which supports Native American-led community efforts toward environmental justice, the Tribe is addressing one of the biggest challenges through the “Build a Village, Save the Earth: Project Stop Texas LNG.”

Juan Mancias stands before Mariposa Village, one of the three camps in South Texas. Funds for Project Stop Texas LNG will go toward replenishing these camps with supplies, food, water, gas, and video and monitoring equipment.

Juan Mancias stands before Mariposa Village, one of the three camps in South Texas. Funds for Project Stop Texas LNG will go toward replenishing these camps with supplies, food, water, gas, and video and monitoring equipment.

Mancias explains that “liquefied natural gas” is natural gas that is cooled to a liquid state to make it easier to transport, as it becomes 1/600th of its original volume. He says Texas LNG aims to create an export facility on 625 acres at the Port of Brownsville near the Gulf of Mexico – a site chosen because it is close to the Permian Basin, where natural gas is extracted, and near existing pipelines. With the new facility will come more pipelines, from a supplier that has not been identified, and more fracking practices, which are already having an impact. Mancias says the region has already experienced over a million small earthquakes, and there are significant concerns that natural springs and the underground aquifer is being polluted by wastewater that is being reinjected into the ground. And all of it is happening directly on the Garcia Pasture site.

“Everything is being connected,” adds Mancias. “It affects us as a Tribe, our people living along this river, and all the way up. We’re concerned about the desecration of our burial sites, but also for our clean water. Everything is coming where we maintained an existence.”

By Amy Jakober

The ocean Derricks that are brought into Port of Brownsville for repair will add to the panorama if the three LNGs and Jupiter Refinery become part of the Bahia Grande area.

The ocean Derricks that are brought into Port of Brownsville for repair will add to the panorama if the three LNGs and Jupiter Refinery become part of the Bahia Grande area.

Investing for the Future at the Isleta Pueblo, NM Helps Build Native Communities

Investing at Isleta small group 500 pixels










Achieving Native Financial Empowerment, a key program of First Nations Development Institute, is an undertaking dedicated to fostering healthy financial habits and lifestyles among Native people of all ages and backgrounds. Each summer First Nations conducts at least one Building Native Communities-themed train-the-trainer workshop to expand a growing base of community trainers who deliver financial empowerment classes to eager audiences across Indian Country.

On July 31st and August 1st, 2019, First Nations conducted Investing for the Future in Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico. Hosted in partnership with Tiwa Lending Services and made possible by generous support from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Investor Education Foundation, the interactive workshop introduced participants to engaging curriculum that featured activities, techniques, and resources specially designed for teaching basic investing skills to Native American audiences.

“We’re very pleased with the favorable response for Building Native Communities: Investing for the Future,” stated Jackie Francke, Vice President of Programs and Administration at First Nations. “We hosted attendees from a wide range of organizations that included tribal housing, the CDFI industry, and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. All these partners share a common need for investing education content that is not only timely but also highly relatable to Native communities.”

Investing for the Future builds upon First Nations’ other Building Native Communities financial empowerment training programs by focusing on challenges a beginning investor in Indian Country might face such as budgeting tribal per capita dividends, managing sales proceeds from the Land Buy Back Program for Tribal Nations, or simply building a retirement nest egg. Sharon Yatsattie, an office automation assistant from the Office of the Special Trustee, an office under the Secretary of the Interior with the fiduciary responsibility to manage Indian funds held in trust by the federal government, attended the workshop to improve her training skills and gain insights on money management.

“It was a wonderful training and it helped me look at my own finances in a new light,” commented Yatsattie. “I’ve taken finance courses before but Investing for the Future enabled me to take ownership of topics such as emergency savings, wealth building, and asset allocation in a more personalized context.”

In addition to Investing for the Future First Nations has created an investor education tool kit in partnership with the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. The co-branded materials include Fighting Fraud 101 and Investor Alert: New Money Coming into Indian Country to address issues confronting recipients of lump sum and windfall payments. These free brochures and handouts can be downloaded at FirstNations.org while hard copies can be requested using the FINRA Foundation online warehouse at SaveAndInvest.org.

For more information on Investing for the Future and other financial empowerment programs offered by First Nations Development Institute please contact Shawn Spruce, First Nations Programs Consultant at agoyopi@gmail.com.

By Shawn Spruce

Investing at Isleta group photo 500 pixels


Philanthropy Opens Doors for Native Innovation

The Catalyst Fund is an example of the philanthropic community listening to the Native community and responding with action. In August 2019, the Network announced 14 grant award recipients, including four Indigenous Communities recipients.

The Catalyst Fund is an example of the philanthropic community listening to the Native community and responding with action. In August 2019, the Network announced 14 grant award recipients, including four Indigenous Communities recipients.













It’s no secret there is innovation in Indian Country. It is especially apparent in landscape conservation, where Native populations have called on their centuries of knowledge, practices and traditions to honor, maximize and sustain their land for generations. But limits in philanthropic grant guidelines have made it difficult to implement and expand Native approaches and also contribute them as best practices for other conservationists. Now, in efforts to harness this Native innovation for the good of collaboration and progress, the Network for Landscape Conservation is launching a new grant program, opening new doors for Native communities and new collaborative, effective solutions for the environment.

A Mission to Meet

The Network for Landscape Conservation is an umbrella network of more than 250 organizational partners and 3,000 individual practitioners that implement and advance strategies that conserve our natural landscapes. The network supports the evolution of land conservation as a larger and more holistic approach, as people increasingly recognize that landscapes encompass our water, ecosystems, communities, culture, and recreation, and that protecting and sustaining them is essential to people’s identity, health and future.

Conservation at this necessary landscape scale calls for moving beyond piece-meal or top-down approaches and embracing inclusive, community-grounded conservation focused on the health of whole landscapes. And it means collaborating across the private-public land continuum to achieve enduring landscape health.  

This essential paradigm shift in conservation has been building for several decades, with landscape-scale partnerships forming in multiple regions across the country, but, according to Network Director Emily Bateson, these groups weren’t talking to each other at first.

“Everyone was recreating the proverbial wheel, trying to figure out how to work collaboratively across large landscapes,” Bateson explains. “The Network was launched in 2011 by more than 25 nonprofit groups, academic institutions, and agencies to connect people to the best resources, and practices, and to each other in order to accelerate the pace of collaboration and conservation on our imperiled landscapes.” The Network is fiscally sponsored by one of its founding organizations, the Center for Large Landscape Conservation (CLLC) in Bozeman, Montana.

Bateson notes that we can all learn from each other as we advance collaborative conservation of whole landscapes, and that we have much to learn in particular from the Native community, which has embraced this holistic approach for thousands of years.

Catalysts for change: Emily Bateson, director of the Network for Landscape Conservation, poses with Loren BirdRattler, project manager for the Blackfeet Tribe’s Agriculture Resource Management Plan, and Beth Connover, director of the Salazar Center for North American Conservation and coordinating committee member of the Network for Landscape Conservation.

Catalysts for change: Emily Bateson, director of the Network for Landscape Conservation, poses with Loren BirdRattler, project manager for the Blackfeet Tribe’s Agriculture Resource Management Plan, and Beth Connover, director of the Salazar Center for North American Conservation and coordinating committee member of the Network for Landscape Conservation.

A catalyst for change

The Network is fortunate to operate a new grant awards program to help accelerate the pace and effective practice of place-based, collaborative landscape conservation across the United States, generously funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The Hewlett Foundation has specifically designated some of its funding for Native population grants.

Opening the doors to Native populations has required some careful thinking by the Network and CLLC on how to best award money for landscape conservation projects. To that end, they created the Landscape Conservation Catalyst Fund, which recognizes that:

“Indigenous collaboratives are often rich with qualities that embody and enhance landscape conservation—including a multigenerational approach, the use of traditional knowledge, the integration of other important societal issues (health, jobs, education, etc.), and a value system that prioritizes symbiotic health between the landscape and its inhabitants.”

Based on this, applying for grants through the Catalyst Fund is open to all Indigenous-led partnerships that are focused on the long-term health of their ecological or cultural landscapes or that focus on advancing and conserving indigenous/aboriginal interests, territories, and rights across a specific landscape.

And yet, Bateson explains how the new Catalyst Fund first required applicants to be designated 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations – a requirement that excluded many Native organizations, including those with the most need and the most promise in holistic, effective landscape conservation.

The Fund quickly adapted to include applicants with a 7871 designation, an IRS tax code applicable to sovereign nations.

Melly Reuling, deputy director of the CLLC, says that Native communities understand that conservation efforts have an ecological, economic, and cultural impact and that the Catalyst Fund provides an opportunity to build on their efforts, whether they be in wildlife, protecting natural habitats, enforcing hunting and fishing rights or treaty rights, entering into MOUs with other agencies, or other initiatives in conservation.

“CLLC is here specifically for raising money for coordination and collaboration — to get the money to the right groups, and support in Indian communities is an extension of that,” she says. “We all do better work when we’re together.”

Listening and responding

The Catalyst Fund is an example of the philanthropic community listening to the Native community and responding with action. Not only has the eligibility criteria changed, but the Fund also addresses the lack of broadband and internet connectivity issues in Indian Country, as Catalyst Fund Native population applications can be submitted by hard copy instead of online only. The Fund also support webinars and in-person convenings so that grantees – Native and other landscape partnerships – can connect and learn from each other in new and vibrant ways. “We know we have a lot to learn from our Native partners and hope the Catalyst Fund can help facilitate that,” notes Bateson.

To get the word out about the funding opportunity, the Network turned to a Native advisory committee and personal outreach to the Native community, and they received almost 50 indigenous applications in the pre-proposal stage and 271 pre-proposals overall, says Bateson. Applicants may request a one- or two-year grant of $10,000 to $25,000, drawing from $330,000 per year in the overall fund. A request for proposals will be released for the second year of funding in early 2020 and native communities are encouraged to learn more about the effort and apply.

In August 2019, the Network announced 14 grant award recipients, including four Indigenous Communities recipients.

Loren BirdRattler, project manager for the Blackfeet Tribe’s Agriculture Resource Management Plan, is a member of the Network’s leadership and is excited about how the fund can tap into knowledge that the Native community has known all along.

“Indigenous people can be leaders in this field. The Blackfeet alone have been on our land for 15,000 years. They’ve led a spiritual life and they know how people and the land are integrated,” he says. “I would hope that non-Native people could learn from that.”

And there is a lot to learn. According to Reuling, “This is a funding resource people can use to share ideas, form partnerships, and benchmark their own progress,” says Reuling. “This can build bridges where there were none.”

Pictured with BirdRattler, Melly Reuling (left) is the deputy director of the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, the fiscal sponsor of the Network and a key partner in the Catalyst Fund.

Pictured with BirdRattler, Melly Reuling (left) is the deputy director of the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, the fiscal sponsor of the Network and a key partner in the Catalyst Fund.













More Inclusive Philanthropy

The call for learning from Native communities is a mandate by the two funders of the Catalyst Fund, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Reuling says that the Network and CLLC are grateful for their support and vision.

Indeed, Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation reports that Hewlett programs are committed to examining how they can expand their networks to new grantees; support field-wide efforts to increase diversity, equity and inclusion; and be more inclusive of the views of the people their philanthropy ultimately seeks to help.

In backing the Catalyst Fund, the Hewlett Foundation sends a message to the philanthropic community that it is listening and responding to the needs of organizations and agencies trying to effect change.

Lindsay Austin Louie, Program Officer of Philanthropy Grantmaking for the Hewlett Foundation, explains that the Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group supports high-quality research by a range of organizations about how to do philanthropy well in order to improve funders’ work. “We know that much of what influences their practice is peers, so it is exciting to see the Catalyst Fund making changes so that their philanthropy will be more inclusive.”

Mike Roberts, President of First Nations Development Institute, which has also received grant funding from Hewlett Foundation for other projects, applauds both foundations and the Network for recognizing the potential inside Indian Country and improving their approaches to making funding available. He cites research contained in First Nations report, “We Need to Change How We Think,” about the declining levels of giving by large foundations, as well as minuscule levels of giving by community foundations, to Native American organizations and causes.

“Seeing the philanthropic community take active steps to make their giving more inclusive is vital to the sustainability and success of Native-led organizations, which are some of the most innovative out there,” Roberts says. “We never doubted whether grants that included the sophisticated practices of Indian people could make a difference, and we now look forward to seeing how practices like this make a long-term difference in philanthropy and grant making.”

Bateson too sees promise in the direction. “It’s our hope that we show people the tremendous value in this area for funding and that the Catalyst Fund continues to grow,” she says. “We’re at the beginning of an important process, and the need is clearly there.”

For more information about the Landscape Conservation Catalyst Fund, please see http://landscapeconservation.org/catalyst-fund/, and sign up for the Network e-news to receive   future updates.

By Amy Jakober


Protecting Native Resources through Education and Outreach

For the RedTailed Hawk Collective (Collective) in Pembroke, North Carolina, funding from First Nations couldn’t have come at a better time, says RedTailed Senior Campaigner Donna Chavis. “We are facing an onslaught from just about every angle in terms of environmental degradation,” she says. But now, they are able to ramp up outreach and community education, taking advantage of a lull in corporate activity to get people more informed and to stop further damage to their land, air and water.

An Environment Under Threat

The Collective operates in a coastal area of North Carolina that is characterized by high poverty and extreme underservice by the state and economic developers. It is an area where Native tribes are fragmented, with many members having moved away over time. The ones remaining often have minimal knowledge of their tribal rights, or ways to unite together to stand up for them.

When companies and developers start advancing projects, there is little organization of Native populations to come together in opposition. Many Native landowners have already been talked into selling or leasing their properties, and tribal members in the area face ongoing threats against their rights, homes, and health that they may not even realize – land degradation, deforestation, fossil fuel pollution, and an increase in chicken and hog farms that produce biofuel from animal waste.

One of the biggest areas of concern is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is being proposed to transport liquified natural gas across 600 miles from West Virginia to southeastern North Carolina. The path of the pipeline will cross streams, forests, swamplands and even graves, causing direct damage to culturally important areas and the Native resources of four tribes – the  Lumbee, Haliwa-Saponi, Coharie, and Meherrin.

Organized for Action

To activate a voice for these tribes, the Southeast Indigenous Climate Change Working Group was formed under the RedTailed Hawk Collective. This group provides a unified base for the four tribes to collectively oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and raise awareness about the impact the pipeline – and all corporate undertakings – will have on the environment.

A member of the Lumbee Tribe and an anti-pipeline activist, Chavis is leading the group’s efforts, with support from the Hawkeye Indian Cultural Center and Friends of the Earth. So far, progress has been made in developing a Memorandum of Agreement to formalize a tribal partnership and generate attention to tribal, cultural and natural resource concerns, which have been greatly ignored by politicians, the media, and even mainstream environmental organizations. Through the working group, the four tribes are reaching out to the additional tribes of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, Occaneechi Band of the Saponi, Sapony, and Waccamaw Siouan. They are bringing in Native leadership from North Carolina State University and drawing from the large Native population at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke, a school steeped in Native allegiance based on being the first state-supported four-year college in the country to accept American Indians.

Through this involvement, Chavis says, the group is doing the important on-the-ground work, organizing, and mobilizing volunteers all in an effort to amplify the Native voice – a voice that is crucial for not only protecting Native rights but ensuring tribal determination for Native health and welfare.

Perfect Timing

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline had been expedited through environmental review under the Trump Administration, and, based on this, did not follow federal law requiring tribal consultation. Construction began in West Virginia in May 2018; however — to the benefit of the working group — development was halted in December 2018 in response to concerns over federal permits issued by the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of which would have allowed the pipelines to cross two forests and the Appalachian Trail. The court vacated this permit, but now the developer is appealing to the U.S Supreme Court and lobbying Congress to override the court’s decision.

To advance education and outreach efforts during this delay in political and environmental activity, the Collective applied for and received funding through First Nations Development Institute’s Broad Reach Fund, a grant program designed to support Native American-led community efforts pursuing environmental justice.

“The timing is perfect,” says Chavis. “It’s like a train got out of control and is now off the tracks. We can use this time to ramp up our local organizing surrounding the pipeline and the LNG facility.”

Indeed, funding from First Nations will allow the group to identify and develop materials that will help expand the knowledge base of tribal communities. The scope of work is large. Project objectives include:

  • Reaching out to Southeastern Indigenous Peoples and letting them know that, despite the claims of developers, the pipeline is neither necessary to meet the energy needs of the community, nor economically or environmental responsible.
  • Providing training opportunities for people to connect and strengthen their efforts to protect Native resources.
  • Leading strategies to unite the Native population and mount an opposition to pipeline developers and legislators.
  • Investigating legal remedies, including how the pipeline abuses eminent domain and uses misleading information to apply for and obtain permits.

Chavis asserts that outreach like this is costly and would not be possible without the help of First Nations.

“A lot of times funders won’t support conferences and convenings, but First Nations recognizes the importance of bringing people together,” Chavis says. “With the infusion of these resources, we’re able to focus more directly on our organizing.”

The need to organize is growing by the day, as there are already ramifications of “dirty industry,” Chavis explains. There have been increases in toxic elements from animal waste and a surge in respiratory illnesses. And without a proper opposition, the damage from both the pipeline and the LNGs will only continue. The area, known as the “Amazon of North Carolina” for its diversity in  waterways, plants, animals, and other lifeforms, will become a cesspool, says Chavis.

“It really is that serious,” she says. “This is everyone’s issue, not just one community’s.”

Going forward, the group hopes to create a ripple effect of education and awareness about the pervasive power of energy companies, the true footprints of proposed pipelines, and the effects that all pollutants have on the environment, whether it’s biofuels in North Carolina or fracked gas coming down from Pennsylvania.

“These threats come in all forms, and we do not differentiate,” says Chavis. “They all impact our resources and rights, and we’re here to address them all.”

While there is an uphill climb ahead, Chavis says Native people are becoming much more informed and empowered about their rights and ready to stand their ground when it comes to land ownership and federal laws. She is also optimistic about the mobilization of Native peoples and what it can mean for Native communities, perhaps even laying the groundwork for tribal nations to get control of their own energy sources. “We’re excited about the possibilities and the interest that the tribes have already shown,” she says. “And without funding from First Nations, that sort of thing couldn’t happen.”

By Amy Jakober