Power to Fundraise: Investing in Native Development Capacity

The NFCoP project team included First Nations’ core NFCoP project staff, the NFCoP program designer, facilitator, and trainer, and the NFCoP advisors.

The NFCoP project team included First Nations’ core NFCoP project staff, the NFCoP program designer, facilitator, and trainer, and the NFCoP advisors.

At the back end of every organization is the development component — the internal system of fundraising, donor engagement, and donor stewardship that is imperative for successful operations and sustainability. But for many Native-led organizations, leaders and staff are in the weeds of programming and are not ideally positioned to carve out time to dedicate to fundraising. At the same time, many funders of these organizations support only programs and services and not necessarily the technical assistance or professional development needed to build their fundraising capacity.

Adding to this is the backdrop of diminished funding overall. In June 2018, First Nations reported that since 2006, on average, large foundations have given less than four-tenths of one percent of grants to nonprofits serving Native people (about half goes to Native-controlled organizations or organizations governed and led by Native people). What’s even more distressing is that, taking into account for inflation, that amounts to $4.3 million less every year to Native American organizations and causes. Further, a survey of First Nations Native food system community partners from 2011 to 2017 found that the top need of First Nations’ grantees today is training on fundraising and developing financial sustainability. This is why First Nations launched the Native Fundraisers Community of Practice.

About the NFCoP
The NFCoP, founded in 2019, was designed specifically based on the belief that change can only occur when Native people, Native-controlled nonprofit organizations, and tribal nations have the capacity to generate financial assets and implement solutions resulting in more equitable and impactful funding to ensure the economic, spiritual, and cultural well-being of Native communities, families, and children. At the core of this program is the creation of a community of practice, which provides critical functions, including teaching about fundraising, supporting collaboration, cultivating partnerships and encouraging sharing.

The project falls under First Nations’ larger project, Building a Sustainable Future for Native American Organizations, which was funded with generous support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and the Simmons Sister Fund. As such, the NFCoP focuses on stability and sustainability to grow the fundraising capacity of Native nonprofits and tribal government programs by ramping up the quality and quantity of philanthropic funding solicitations. The end goal: Increase their ability to serve their communities.

The NFCoP brought together core NFCoP project staff; the program designers, facilitators, and trainers Eileen Egan and Daryl Melvin from Melvin Consulting PLLC; and the four NFCoP advisors who are leaders in the field of philanthropy to deliver the main program components:

• Advising and Peer Support
• In-Person Training by Fundraising Experts
• Online Grants Course and Virtual Study Sessions
• Ongoing Post-Program Support

All activities and supporting program elements were intended to establish a trusting environment and a safe place for sharing, testing ideas, and taking risks.

Sharing and learning
Participants said the experience was valuable for both formalizing processes and strengthening projects and approaches to improve sustainability. Participant Aretta Begay, Executive Director of Diné be’ iiná Inc. (The Navajo Lifeway), said this training was one of the “most self-investing things” the organization could do for themselves.

 All NFCoP program activities were grounded in the following six core values: creativity, innovation, humor, knowledge sharing, storytelling and relationships.

All NFCoP program activities were grounded in the following six core values: creativity, innovation, humor, knowledge sharing, storytelling and relationships.

“In fundraising, a lot of us do what we do without realizing the structure behind it,” she said. For example, she explained that while she’s been a grant-writer for some time, she never had any formal training. But through the NFCoP, she heard from well-qualified advisors and trainers who actually broke down the grant-writing process.

One of those professionals was Joanie Buckley, Internal Services Division Director of the Oneida Community Integrated Food System for the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. Buckley said as an advisor for the NFCoP, her focus was on participants and what they would gain from the training, which she described as eye-opening for many of them. “It gave them a different perspective in determining their needs and how they articulate them,” Buckley said. “Through the training they learned about new resources and were able to find funding sources for their respective projects and exchange ideas and philosophies.”

She said the emerging fundraisers in her group were not necessarily the grant-writers, and that they wear many hats. “They were in fact the program directors and this experience let them see how funders may think,” she said. “These directors often get removed from the process because they are busy developing their programs. In reality, they are actually the appropriate people to tell their story.”

Metrics-based outcomes
During the first in-person training, NFCoP members learned about the purpose and value of a community of practice and how to use this tool to build their fundraising skills and networks. They also were introduced to a prospect research database to develop a prospect list. The second in-person training, focused on storytelling and messaging using the Reclaiming Native Truth Messaging Guide; culturally responsive evaluation; federal grant writing; perfecting your pitch; and making “the ask.”

A key component that made the NFCoP stand apart from other grant-writing programs is that it addressed the negative and false narratives that exist about Native Americans in both the public and in mainstream philanthropy, and it introduced narrative change strategies to the benefit of the group’s fundraising efforts and overall services provided in Indian Country.

Participants left with the resources and skills to inspire their own organizations and make significant progress in advancing the sustainability of their work and communities. Since the conclusion of the 2019 NFCoP in November, several members have attributed fundraising success to their participation with over $2.5 million in grants received, including one participant who never wrote a proposal before but applied for and received a $5,000 grant for his organization.

For Alicia Gourd-Mackin, Social Work Instructor, Social Worker and Co-Founder of the Indigenous Birth and Breastfeeding Collective of North Dakota, knowledge gained through the community of practice provided her with not only technical skills but also the ability to articulate and present their programs to potential thunders. “It put things into perspective for me,” she said. “It helped me see the process from the grant provider’s side, which allowed me to better organize our approaches.”

certificate 2

Participants left with long-lasting knowledge. One member said, “Overall it was a life-changing experience for me. I loved every minute of it and I learned so much about grant writing and myself…I left Boulder, CO, feeling refreshed and motivated to change lives and make a difference for Indian Country as a whole.”

Another participant, Leah Hennessy, Volunteer Executive Director of Laulima Kuha’o, added that among the most important takeaways were the tools to better connect with funders. Instead of just waiting for a list of grants to come out, she learned how to narrow down funders and opportunities based on the activities they want to accomplish, see what other organizations are doing, and identify people they could work with. She said she learned strategies for team development and she gained a number of partners and connections just by being in the cohort. “All of the NFCoP advisors brought something to the table,” she said. “This is a resource I can continue to turn to even now that the training is complete.”

Moving forward
Findings from the pilot year of the NFCoP overwhelmingly indicate the opportunities and trainings offered were invaluable and have already yielded a substantial return on investment. First Nations is hopeful that the community of practice approach will help these organizations and future participants support and sustain their operations in the face of competing demands and the ongoing effects of coronavirus, which have made the need for fundraising skills even more important. To that end, plans are underway for future outreach to more participants in 2020. Catherine Bryan, First Nations’ Director of Programs for Strengthening Tribal and Community Institutions, said, “We’re looking forward to building on this model and having an even greater impact for the future of Native communities and the organizations that serve them.”

Teens Donate Funds Where They See the Most Need

 Eesha and Liya meet online for their fundraising efforts, United Against COVID-19. Together, the high school sophomores raised $4,000 to support Native communities.

Eesha and Liya meet online for their fundraising efforts, United Against COVID-19. Together, the high school sophomores raised $4,000 to support Native communities.

When coronavirus hit the nation, future high school sophomores Eesha Neunaha and Liya Chen knew they wanted to do something to help. Calling on connections, resources, and innovation, they began collecting masks and funds. But, from there, the question soon became: Where would their donation do the most good? The answer: Native communities.

“After reading about how vulnerable Native people are to coronavirus, we realized that they might really appreciate as much money as we can help raise for the community,” said Liya.

That’s when they learned about First Nations Development Institute and the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund and made a generous donation of $4,000 to help Native communities.

The two philanthropists are classmates at The Hockaday School in Dallas, where they regular work together on community service projects. In the middle of March when closures and medical needs increased nationwide, the teens learned that a lot of hospitals did not have enough masks. At the same time, China had an excess of masks, and Liya’s father helped Liya connect with several companies in China to facilitate a donation of 3,000 masks to the Dallas community.

Meanwhile, others learned about the girls’ outreach and wanted to lend a hand by giving monetarily. Eesha worked with her parents in setting up a Go Fund Me page, and both teens set out to spread the word. The donations quickly poured in, as the teens researched where the funds could be best used.

“We were looking for a community that was more in need,” Eesha explained. “We started thinking about Native communities, and that’s when we learned about First Nations.”

Liya said that reading the descriptions on First Nations’ website about the impact of the pandemic in areas that are already at risk was a learning experience. “For me, in our daily lives, we don’t really hear about what’s going on in these communities. But this project really opened my eyes to a whole new world.”

Eesha shared that it’s a world that resonated with the teens, as they are both considered minorities and both daughters of immigrants, with Eesha’s parents originally from India and Liya’s parents originally from China.

Those parents are proud of the girls and supportive of their efforts. “They were glad that we chose an organization near us and close to our hearts,” Eesha said.

First Nations is grateful for both girls’ contribution. Eesha and Liya’s donation went directly to First Nations’ COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, from which 100% of donations were given out in the form of grants to 81 Native-led organizations for general operating, response and relief expenses. “Only through contributions were we able to do so much,” said Eileen Egan, Director of Development for First Nations. “And the contribution of Eesha and Liya were beyond commendable. They inspired us and touched our hearts, and we are ever grateful for their advocacy, awareness, and generosity.”

Fundraising and Development: Building Capacity to Do More at Dakota Wicohan

Sunktanka Standing Rock 2016

When it comes to initiatives to improve life in Native communities, the investments that are direly needed are often not the shiny, exciting ones that make headlines. Instead what’s needed is the back-end structure, the technical, operational aspects that lay the groundwork for greater things to happen. First Nations Development Institute recognizes this need and provides essential training and technical assistance to tribal organizations throughout Indian Country. As a result, organizations like Dakota Wicohan in Morton, Minnesota, are accomplishing feats that may not be shiny and exciting but are every bit as crucial to their missions.

Investing in the Internal

Eileen O’Keefe, program director for Dakota Wicohan, says that establishing a fundraising and donor management structure was key to her organization’s future, but getting support for such an operational cost has always been a challenge. “Without direct outcomes and a demonstrated impact, it doesn’t necessarily make a good story for funders,” says O’Keefe. “It’s not exciting, external work. First Nations knows that, as small organizations, we need to build that internal capacity.”

Dakota Wicohan is a non-profit cultural resource center focused on the celebration and transmission of Dakota cultural lifeways, art, and language. The organization is a long-term grantee of First Nations and has received seven grants over the last eight years through both the Native Youth and Culture Fund and the Native Arts Initiative. As part of this funding, the organization has received two Supporting Native Arts Grants that provide for training and technical assistance from First Nations during specified grant periods.

The training and technical assistance began by having O’Keefe’s team complete a comprehensive questionnaire regarding operations, capacity, and programmatic infrastructure. “They asked us what we wanted, what we needed, and what was the most important,” she says. “From there they really drill it down to the main items and what you could most benefit from.”

An investment in fundraising is an investment in the organization’s work, such as leading field trips like this one to the Minnesota Historical Society to see a screening of the film Warrior Women.

An investment in fundraising is an investment in the organization’s work, such as leading field trips like this one to the Minnesota Historical Society to see a screening of the film Warrior Women.

For the first funding session, they decided to concentrate on board training and project management. For the next session, they moved their focus to individual donors and fundraising. To help them build this essential framework, First Nations arranged for nonprofit experts at Melvin Consulting PLLC to partner with the leaders of Dakota Wicohan.

One expert was Eileen Egan, who calls on her experience in individual giving to provide technical assistance to nonprofits and tribal nations to help them reach their full potential. On this project, Egan worked with Dakota Wicohan to create a fundraising plan and select a donor database with electronic marketing capacity. “She looked at where we were hitting, and where we could improve,” says O’Keefe. “That meant looking at fundraising broadly, not just at foundations, but how we were connecting with individual donors.”

Egan felt what was needed was a framework or structure.

“For Dakota Wicohan, the answers are right there in the community. They have a talented team and knowledge,” Egan says. “But by working together we could create more intentionality, including an identifying an online marketing tool so they could reach new levels in fundraising, expand their individual donor base of champions, and progress toward their mission. The training and technical assistance provided the resources needed to step back and consider where they want to be in five years and how they can diversify revenue streams to lessen their reliance on a few sources.”

The plan for Dakota Wicohan involved investing in the technology to organize and streamline their development operations and better reach and engage with potential donors. Egan’s team helped acquire and set up donor management software, transition their records, and train Dakota Wicohan on its use.

“We are a small non-profit, so most of our resources were spent running programs. We weren’t actively accessing our funding sources or cultivating our donors,” says O’Keefe. “We used to have a couple lists here, and an Excel spreadsheet there.”

Egan’s team helped them establish processes and identify opportunities, as well as evaluate and elevate the things the organization was already doing for marketing and outreach, such as its website, newsletter, and social media.

Imperfect action versus perfect inaction

Dakota Wicohan has dived into the new fundraising plan and embraced the training, and is now learning about the full power of the software. O’Keefe says that in addition to the technical assistance, they’re gaining lessons in confidence and intentionality.

“A lot of times, we would get overwhelmed or would hold off making a decision because we would be operating in an area, fundraising, that was entirely new to many of us,” she says.

One quote that is embraced by First Nations President and CEO Michael E. Roberts and resonated with O’Keefe is by Harry S. Truman and it really resonated with O’Keefe and her team: “Imperfect action beats perfect inaction every time.”

“I think we’ve drawn a lot of strength from that,” says O’Keefe. “It stops us from getting paralyzed, but to keep moving ahead. We can do this.”

Tapping potential

The training and technical assistance from First Nations is just wrapping up, however, the organization is already seeing results. O’Keefe says they’ve seen a 5% increase in the number of new donors, many coming from California and other states in which Dakota Wicohan had not expected it was having an impact. There has also been an increase in monthly sustainer donations as well as nationwide exposure to the organization.

O’Keefe says her team has been able to implement their overall fundraising efforts in a more concentrated and systematic way, making sure they’re ready for certain fundraising timeframes and events, and being much more deliberate. In addition, the planning has opened the doors for future development goals including planned giving.

“We’re been able to do so more than we thought, and First Nations has been so generous and helpful,” says O’Keefe. “We’re taking baby steps moving forward, but there’s more on the horizon, and with their support, we know we can get there.”

With greater fundraising capacity, Dakota Wicohan can also continue engaging youth in outreach projects, such as this Water Walk and Prayer Ride.

With greater fundraising capacity, Dakota Wicohan can also continue engaging youth in outreach projects, such as this Water Walk and Prayer Ride.

It is true that fundraising strategies and donor management software are not shiny and exciting, and they’re not tied directly to outcomes that are moving the needle in Indian Country. But they are part of the everyday actions that can be perfected so that Native organizations can move the needle themselves. They are key factors in empowering tribal groups like Dakota Wicohan. And they are directly in line with First Nation’s mission to invest in and create innovative institutions that strengthen asset control and support economic development. This is indeed exciting and shiny, and First Nations is proud to be a part of it.

Native Youth Get Opportunity to See Everything “Out There”

Youth leaders welcome participants to the competition. Photo credit: NCAIED

Youth leaders welcome participants to the competition. Photo credit: NCAIED

It was the chance for Native teens and young adults to see Native entrepreneurs in action. An opportunity to stand before a crowd and present their own innovative ideas. And a unique door-opening to meet role models, explore possibilities and envision a future where they will soon play an active role.

This was the inaugural Native Youth Business Plan Competition at RES 2020, a partnership by First Nations Development Institute and the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED) to engage Native youth in business, leadership, and success, made possible by an investment from the 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation.

“The experience showed me what else there is to offer. For people like me to get off Reservation and see what is out there in the world, it opened up a lot of new opportunities,” said Josh Bushman, a student from Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa whose team took first place in the high school division for their project Coffee Cart: Latte for the Oyate.

A partnership for the future
This was exactly the purpose of the Native Business Plan Competition, which grew out of a collaboration between First Nations and NCAIED to let Native students see up close and personal Native business owners and entrepreneurs excelling and thriving in the world and being given a chance to participate themselves.

Chris James, President and CEO of NCAIED, said bringing the two organizations together to highlight students and their ideas just made sense. “We were blown away with some of the ideas that came out of this competition and hopefully we’ll be able to see some of those ideas turned into businesses. It’s our goal to plant that seed,” James said.

“At First Nations, we’ve been building the court, hanging the backboard and finding the balls and the jerseys, and now it’s time for us to put the players on the court,” said Michael Roberts, president and CEO of First Nations. “This is an opportunity for young people to flex that muscle. And we can move forward and get them into business rather than just talking about it.”

Opportunity by design
The competition process began in 2019 when First Nations put out a call to Native communities inviting Native youth to submit abbreviated business plans for their products or companies. From these applications, five semifinalist teams were selected from each age division (high school and college) to receive additional mentoring from Native business owners, entrepreneurs, and other professionals working in this space to further flesh out their business plans and design. Then, semifinalist teams participated in an on-stage competition held in conjunction with the Reservation Economic Summit (RES), where a team of Native judges and investors decided which business venture they would most likely fund.

RES is a multifaceted event from NCAIED featuring unparalleled access to respected tribal leaders, members of Congress, federal agency representatives, state and local elected officials and top CEOs on a national platform. Here, on day three of the event, youth participants honed their projects through a full lineup of workshops: Business Plan Essentials, Perfecting Your Pitch, Assessing Your Business Plan for the Future, and Accessing Capital & Building Your Budget.

Nine high school and college teams then had five minutes to pitch their ideas and business plans outlining the value of their products and services, operational and technological viability, and capital requirements and financial forecasts, and more during the onstage competition later that evening. Winning teams in each division were awarded cash prizes: $7,500 for first place, $5,000 for second place, and $2,500 for third place.

Participants presented their ideas before a panel of Native leaders and entrepreneurs. Photo credit: NCAIED

Participants presented their ideas before a panel of Native leaders and entrepreneurs. Photo credit: NCAIED

First Nations Senior Program Officer Kendall Tallmadge, who helped organize and facilitate the competition, said all participants, from the applicants to the final winners, should be commended. “These students represent a bright next generation of innovation and excitement. It was an honor to be in a position to hear their ideas and see how they are valuing their culture and heritage through innovative business designs to make a difference in their communities.”

Value beyond dollars

Regardless of prize winnings, the experience the students took away from the competition was priceless, said Prairie Blount, who served as the emcee for the event. “It gave the students exposure to the larger Indigenous world. They were amazed that there are so many Indigenous professionals in business,” she said. “As a student, you’re consumed with your campus. But this gave them an opportunity to step outside and see that we’re all working toward bettering our communities. Others are coming along and paving the way.”

Nate Lee, Vice President of Native American Financial Services for BOK Financial who served as a mentor for the High School team Lumbee Nation Youth Enterprise, said that the value of the experience was enormous. “For the students it was a powerful and rewarding experience to compete on a national stage and also to interact with Native professionals in finance and economics.”

The students agreed:

Josh Bushman, from the Fort Peck Sioux Tribe, said he would 100% recommend the program to his friends. His teammate Antone Manning from Pyramid Lake Paiute added that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience in a unique environment, and that winning was a validation of all his team’s hard work.

Kristall Vega (Cloverdale Pomo), who was on the College first place team, California Indian Museum with their product Acorn Energy Bites, said she loved seeing all the Native youth present on projects they are passionate about to better their communities. “I believe there is a lot of value in experiences like this one because it gives a platform for Native youth to share their voices,” she said.

The Native Youth Business Plan Competition is one of the many ways First Nations invests in Native Youth and gives them opportunities to learn, be mentored, and connect with Native leaders who set an example for collaboration, success and advancement. It’s the type of opportunities that Mentor Nate Lee said are imperative in creating sustained and repeatable financial success in our Native communities. “It must start with our youth, and that includes opportunities to showcase their talents and raise the bar. The future of business is bright for our Native communities as we fill the pipeline of talented and ambitious Native youth, but we must go further to keep that pipeline full by preparing the next class of Kindergartners.”

Indeed, the first-ever Native Youth Business Plan competition will fuel that pipeline, and the 2020 event has built the groundwork for further entrepreneurial opportunities for young people who are ready to explore them.

Advisor Prairie Blount concluded: “These students are the future leaders, who are actually leaders already.”

Participants take home connections, experience and confidence. Photo credit: NCAIED

Participants take home connections, experience and confidence. Photo credit: NCAIED

Luce Fellows’ Convening Focuses on Connection and Creativity

Sherwin Bitsui, Diné (Navajo) poet.

Sherwin Bitsui, Diné (Navajo) poet.








The group is silent as the poet holds them in his aural grasp.
“What does it sound like?” he asks.
After a few guesses, one person pipes up, “Water.”
“That’s correct…Water,” says the poet. “So important, especially when you look at the picture of where I’m from.”

Poet Sherwin Bitsui is a Diné (Navajo) from the Navajo Nation in White Cone, Arizona, and teacher at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Leading attendees of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship at their first convening of the year at a workshop in Boulder, Colorado, February 19-20, 2020, he helped them tap into their creativity and think about the importance of words and language in opening themselves up for their Fellowship year. He shared his own path into poetry and the different ways that Native poets have used objects and experiences to express their stories. In the opening example, he said the word (which sounds like “Twa”) a word inspired by the water dripping from a seasonal creek near his childhood home. Each participant then sketched out a poem and shared it with the group one by one, using a mix of English and their Indigenous languages to share a fragment of their own story.

About the program

The Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship was created in 2019 to honor and support intellectual leaders in Native communities who are actively working to generate, perpetuate and disseminate Indigenous knowledge. The 10 Fellows, selected from over 500 applicants receive a monetary award of $50,000, access to additional resources for training and professional development, and the opportunity to apply for $25,000 in additional support for a community project after their fellowship year ends.

“Another central component of the fellowship year is to bring the Fellows together at three in-person meetings,” said Kendall Tallmadge, senior program officer at First Nations. “The in-person convenings are designed to build the Fellows as a cohort and community of practice. At these meetings, Fellows are networking and building connections with each other and with other Native leaders in their fields. We hope these meetings will help Fellows build an additional network of support and collaboration with each other as they continue their work in their respective knowledge fields.”

These convenings are organized with input provided from the Fellows regarding speakers, topics and overarching goals.

At this first meeting, Fellows were enthusiastic and ready to participate in the busy agenda before them. They came from all time zones of the United States to engage with keynote speakers, facilitators and each other to begin the work of mapping their fellowship year and coalescing as a community of practice who could rely on each other for support, guidance, and encouragement.

Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellows 2020

Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellows 2020

Indigenized models

Each Fellow shared their background and what brought them to the specific Indigenous knowledge they hold. They are diverse and yet bound together by their passion and commitment to perpetuating the precious information and backgrounds from which they came. Some, like Corine Pearce, are the last people in their tribes who know their skills and have their special knowledge. There is honor, significance, and weight in carrying these talents.

Each of the follows were able to map and share their plans for the year, including identifying elements of success and possible challenges in their upcoming work. “Always remember who we are doing the work for – our children, our People,” shared one of the Fellows.

Sharing their stories through art

The group met Melanie Yazzie, Diné (Navajo) professor of printmaking in the Art and Art History Department at the University of Colorado-Boulder. She and her husband Clyde created a gel printmaking station, where she taught the art of printmaking using cutouts, gel squares and 10 different paints. Like the poetry exercise, Fellows were encouraged to share their stories and journies through art. After some hesitation, a few tentative prints and encouragement from Melanie, soon everyone was diving in and trying this new technique to capture meaningful symbols of their knowledge and their Nations.

Gel print by Lloyd Sing.

Gel print by Lloyd Sing.

At the end of the second day, the Fellows met “World Café” style to further brainstorm how they would like to connect with each other, what they would like to learn together on this journey, other speakers they would like to hear from, and other ways to incorporate spirit feeding and self-care at the next 2 convenings. They shared a sense of togetherness in their pursuits and their energy was palpable.

“It feels amazing to meet peers and colleagues who come from such a high level of skill and experience,” shared one Fellow. “I feel such validation!”

The feeling of validation is certainly shared by staff at First Nations. To be able to bring together this level of Native genius is humbling and rewarding. We look forward to sharing more from these exceptional talents in the months to come.

The 2020 Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellows are:

Clarence Cruz (Khaayay), Ohkay Owingeh – Tewa
Knowledge Field: Traditional Potter/Assistant Professor, University of New Mexico

Dorene Day, Ojibwe Anishinabe, Nett Lake, Minnesota
Knowledge Field: Activist-Indigenous Birth Revitalization, Oondaadizike Kwe

Rahekawę̀·rih Montgomery Hill, Skarù·rę (Tuscarora Indian Nation)
Knowledge Field: Speaker, Linguist, Language Activist

Lisa Yellow Luger, Standing Rock Sioux
Knowledge Field: Tribal Justice Specialist

Trisha L. Moquino, Cochiti/Kewa/Ohkay Ohwingeh
Knowledge Field: Indigenous Educator/Guide and the Co-Founder of Keres Children’s Learning Center

Corine Pearce, Redwood Valley Little River Band of Pomo Indians
Knowledge Field: Basket Weaver, Artist, Environmental Steward

Hanna Sholl, (Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, Alaska) 
Knowledge Field: Contemporary Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) Artist and Culture Bearer

Lloyd Harold Kumulāʻau Sing Jr., Native Hawaiian
Knowledge Field: Traditional mixed-media artist and cultural practitioner

X’unei Lance Twitchell, Tlingit, Haida, Yupʼik, Sami
Knowledge Field: Indigenous Language Teacher

Peter Williams, Yup’ik
Knowledge Field: Artist and Activist

By First Nations staff

Investing in Our Roots: Standing Rock Gardening Improves Health & Sovereignty

Standing Rock landscape by Frodo/StandingRock.org

Standing Rock landscape by Frodo/StandingRock.org

When we look at history, American Indians are often the canary in the mine. When their health goes, it’s a sign of what’s in store for other populations. This is one of the many reasons behind the work of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Nutrition for the Elderly program. Here, with the support of First Nations, this community is not only protecting that canary by improving Native health but taking active steps to promote food sovereignty.

A food desert

The canary metaphor comes from Petra Harmon One Hawk, director of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Nutrition for the Elderly/Caregiver Support Program, who learned it from her family. For Petra, the call to invest in the nutrition of Standing Rock is both professional and personal. In her role, her goal is to centralize and enhance services for seniors through this comprehensive program to connect the elders with elder abuse prevention programs, nursing facilities, senior center programs, and nutrition services. She is also the Title VI Director for the tribe, which means she leads programs to better meet the needs of older Indians. It is in this capacity where her roots growing up on the reservation, her medical school education, and her master’s degree in Indian Health intersect.

“I was trained to treat patients who have a high rate of diabetes. I learned that all my role was as a future physician was to prescribe them medication and tell them that as long they eat right and exercise, they would be able to manage it,” she explains. “But when I moved home to Standing Rock, I realized how unrealistic that is.”

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is located on 2.5 million acres with three communities on the North Dakota side and five on the South Dakota side. Years ago, to control flooding by the Missouri River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began building damns, which ultimately created backflow and drowned out Native lands. The Dakota/Lakota People were relocated to higher ground, far above the wildlife, rich soil, and fruit-bearing trees that were washed away. In this new setting, the Dakota/Lakota braved cold weather and barren resources, along with the social trauma of the era that was pervasive throughout Native communities.

Petra explains that returning home after years of schooling was her first realization that Standing Rock was a food desert. She saw the health disparities caused by lack of access to healthy foods and specifically Native foods, which is a requirement of the Older Indians Act.

While Standing Rock had the history and knowledge of how to grow and sustain Native foods, its infrastructure was lost. She says, fighting diabetes was not as easy as eating right and exercising. Access to healthy foods was limited, along with the awareness of the importance of good nutrition in improving health outcomes. Part of Petra’s job has been to rebuild those systems and revive those traditional foods, which calls for not only building that infrastructure but reinvigorating gardening and community as a way of life.

Petra Harmon One Hawk

Petra Harmon One Hawk














Returning to traditions

This is where Petra is serving the elders in the Standing Rock community and also tapping into their knowledge. “They have a collective memory of being self-sufficient,” she explains. “We’ve lost our gardening skills, our cooking skills, and even our taste buds for healthy food. We are now fighting against a system of convenience.”

Older tribal members are helping Petra’s team take on the battle, and one of their weapons is the implementation of the Elder Community Gardens. These gardens are building on a foundation that started in the Cannon Ball community through the Sioux County North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension Office. The Indian Health Service Nutrition Coalition and NDSU Sioux County Extension both have community gardens located at Cannon Ball and Fort Yates. The bounty is shared with schools, the communities, elders, and the Nutrition for the Elderly Program.

While there are other gardens throughout Standing Rock, the Elders Community Gardens Project aims to help elders who want a garden of their own. (They can even create raised-box gardens, which are table height so elders can sit while gardening.) The gardens were created as a direct project of the Nutrition for the Elderly Program both to provide food for the elderly in line with Title VI regulations and to engage the elderly in meaningful work. They also build on other progress at Standing Rock, including the success in returning bison meat to the food packages as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations or FDPIR. Coordination, planning, and implementation of the gardens have been made possible in part through grant funding from First Nations Development Institute.

Pete Red Tomahawk grew up with Petra’s mother and works part-time for the Nutrition for the Elderly Program. He is an enrolled member of Standing Rock and one of the 400 elders in the community. From his perspective, he explains that Elder Community Gardens are not a new approach.

“We’ve always had gardens,” he says. Every family had their own garden. Food was shared, and root cellars were built to preserve and store vegetables. The soil was fertile and getting enough food – and the right kinds of – was not a concern, he says. As a result, folks had very healthy lifestyles, and issues like diabetes, cancer, and health problems were not prevalent.

This knowledge was engrained in Pete’s generation, but it has diminished through the years. The  Elder Community Gardens are bringing it back.

“These are things we learned when we were children in the 1950s,” he says. “Today, we find ourselves as grandparents, trying to teach our younger ones, who I hope will teach their own children.”

Advancing food sovereignty

The Elder Community Gardens have become a key aspect of the infrastructure at Standing Rock, and have laid the groundwork for more outreach, cooking classes, and community involvement. Based on their success, Petra and her team were invited to take part in the Food Sovereignty Summit, co-hosted by First Nations and the nearby Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. There they joined leaders from throughout Indian Country to discuss the disconnect that has occurred between food and Native cultures and beliefs, the holistic role of food, and the need to reconnect with the land.

“As Indians, our food systems are dictated by the Farm Bill and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a result, our health disparities are catastrophic,” Petra says. “But by working in regard to food sovereignty, we can take back that control.”

It’s control Pete says that had been part of the Native culture. “When we look at what we learned from our parents and grandparents, tribes survived by gardening. As tribes, we know what’s growing and how we can live off the land, “ he says. He credits First Nations for highlighting that knowledge and showcasing it in new ways.

“We’re just starting out, and tribes like Oneida Nation are way ahead,” he says. “But still, we are all advancing, and First Nations is providing the training to tie programs and communities together.”

It is a movement they plan to advance. Beyond the gardens, Standing Rock is looking at more avenues for outreach, nutrition classes, and partnerships for extension programs at institutions like NDSU. Investments are being made in canning practices, irrigation, soil analysis, food storage, and creating an orchard. Youth are being introduced to healthy foods in an effort to reset those lost taste buds. “Our dream is to share this knowledge, so information does not go away as the elderly age,” he says. “We’re looking at that next generation and passing on that way of life. In a metaphorical sense, we are planting that seed.”

In a world that remains vulnerable to legislation, climate change, bias, and upheaval, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is making strides for their elders and for their youth that they hope will offset their risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart issues. They are restoring the role of gardening for nutrition and sustainability. And they are taking to heart that canary in the mine, recognizing that the health and future of all Indians depend on taking back control. 

By Amy Jakober

A Personal Essay about Oginiig (Rosehips) and Recipe for Rose Sauce

Rose hips

Rose hips

Our friend Tashia Hart, (Red Lake Anishinaabe) Duluth Culinary ethnobotanist, has shared some of her recipes and stories for your enjoyment. This is the first of her three offerings. 

“Itchy jiid” (pronounced ‘jeed,’ like ‘seed’) was one of the first references to wild edible plants I learned as a kid. Or, at least it was one of the most memorable, as it was always delivered by my father or one of his friends, accompanied by a snicker. We’ll return to that in a minute.

Now ‘jiid’ isn’t exactly a standalone word in the Anishinaabe language, but rather is spoken in terms of ‘his jiid’ or ‘her jiid’ or ‘their jiid.’ So to say ‘itchy jiid,’ is kind of slang usage. I’d never heard anyone outside of Red Lake call oginiig (oh-gin-eeg) this, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized it must be somewhat of a localized term. It was my father who told me this name, ‘itchy jiid,’ and it was my mother who told me the name ‘rosehip.’

Growing up, my dad taught us about the plants around us in the environments of northern Minnesota. My mother is a bookworm who loves to read about medicinal plants from across the globe and put them into practice. For example, she would calm us with celery seed, numb sore teeth with clove buds, and made sure we were eating our veggies. It’s obvious to me now that their appreciation for the plant world was combined and seeded into my own. For this, I am grateful.

The rose is the focus of art, literature, music, festivities, food, medicine, and traditions spanning across continents and millennia.

If you work with rosehips, you will know that you don’t ingest the seeds, for they are covered in irritating hairs. If you happen to do so, let’s just say you can expect an itchy departure. My dad knew this and would instruct us to nibble around the middle where the seeds are if we wanted to eat the fruit. I always thought rosehips were like tiny, waxy, creamy apples, and loved finding them on our outdoor adventures. They were always firmer before the snow, and afterward, they would get mushier.

Crushing the rose hips

Crushing the rose hips

When dried and eaten plain—which is a feat characterized with a special kind of crunchiness—I think oginiig taste like tomatoes, but when you cook dried or fresh rosehips, they smell and, with a little sweetener, taste more like apples. It’s not surprising that ‘ogin,’ the Anishinaabe word for a rosehip, is also our word for a tomato.

According to the USDA, rosehips are an excellent source of vitamins C and A, as well as fiber, and contain manganese, magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron, and other vitamins and minerals. Some people believe that the rose can help revive a person from emotional numbness, depression, and revitalize a desire to live in the moment. I can attest to this effect.

A few years back, I was in the tail process of reviving myself from exactly such a state—a process that has taken decades to date—and I found myself in the Sioux Chef kitchen in Minneapolis, working with rose petals with my friend, and at the time kitchen manager, Andrea Weber. We gave the petals a bath in chilled water and added honey before putting them in a dehydrator. The smells from this entire process did indeed impress on me a desire to live more in charge of my own life—carpe diem—as they say. Working with the roses over those few days had an effect on me that I can still feel anytime I wish, by just remembering their smell and how beautiful their presence was. Anytime I have worked with roses since it’s been the same. It’s almost as if they are the essence of love itself, which when you’re in need of self-love, can be a powerfully moving and uplifting force. I find much gratitude working with plants, and the rose has a special, integrated role in my plant-memory-repository.

-Rose Sauce-

Rosehips and petals can be wild-harvested, cultivated, and purchased at some local health food or herbal stores.

½ cup rosehips (seeds removed)

¼  – ½ cup maple sugar

1 ½ cups water

Rose water (recipe below)

In a small saucepan, bring water and rosehips to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and let simmer until the rosehips begin to soften (about eight minutes). Uncover and simmer five minutes more (turn burner back up to medium heat). Stir. Add ¼ cup maple sugar and stir again. Allow mixture to simmer low, stirring occasionally until the rosehip sauce thickens and it is easy to blend most of the fruit bits fairly smooth. This can take 20-30 minutes. During this time, you can make your Rose Water.

-Rose Water-

½ cup rose petals

1 cup water

Boil water. Remove from heat, stir in rose petals and cover. Let sit at least five minutes. Stir, cover and let sit another five minutes. Petals should be a much lighter color and the water should be a rose color. Strain.

Turn off the heat. Whisk until sauce is as smooth as you can make it. Allow to cool just a little. You can now either blend your sauce in a food processor or strain out the bits through a fine mesh strainer. If you blend it, you will have a little more fiber in your sauce. It’s delicious either way. Whisk in your rose water and another ¼ c of maple sugar, if you want your sauce to be sweeter. You should end up with about 1 cup of rose sauce that has a color and consistency similar to barbecue sauce.

This sauce has a potent rose flavor and can be incorporated into many recipes.

Try marinating grilled meats and veggies with it, using it as a salad dressing, adding sparkling water to it to make wild-rose soda, spilling it on pancakes, blending it with other fruit sauces—the possibilities are endless—have fun exploring!

I recently put this sauce on some sweet potato corn pudding along with sliced strawberries.

Sweet potato cake with rose sauce and berries

Sweet potato cake with rose sauce and berries

Here is a basic recipe for that, if you’d like to try something similar.

-Sweet Potato Corn Pudding-

1 cup mashed sweet potato (can substitute pumpkin, applesauce or mashed bananas)

1 cup cornmeal

3 cups of water

Maple syrup or sugar to taste

2 tsp. salt

Boil water and salt in a medium-large pot. Reduce to medium heat and whisk in cornmeal slowly, stirring constantly until cornmeal is smooth. Simmer about seven minutes. Whisk in the sweet potato. Add sweetener to taste. Serve with rose sauce and berries.

If you’d like to learn more ways to incorporate rose into your diet, you can search for how to make some of these popular food and medicinal preparations:




Seed Oil



Let’s Speak Ojibwe:

Ogin – a rosehip (also our word for tomato)

Oginiig –rosehips

Oginii-waabigwan – a rose

Oginii-waabigwaniin – roses

Oginiiwaatig – a rose bush

*Language from The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary


by Tashia Hart

Bringing Data Alive to Improve Nutrition and Health


Bringing Data Alive to Improve Nutrition and Health

For the Chugach Regional Resources Commission (CRRC) in Anchorage, Alaska, the knowledge gained from food assessments and reports is only as valuable as the ability to use it. With funding from First Nations Development Institute, project leaders have gathered valuable information on traditional foods and lifestyles and are now sharing it in ways that increase understanding and raise awareness. Here, data is not just a report on the shelf, but a living tool to improve the knowledge and health of the seven Tribes that make up the Chugach Region.

The landscape of Chugach

The Chugach Region covers the remote area of Prince William Sound and the Lower Cook Inlet. The area is rural, with parts only accessible by small aircraft or boat. Climate change is pervasive, and the threat to their natural resources from outside pressure and industrial development is constant. 

The area is subject to big-picture issues that affect Native populations throughout Alaska, according to CRRC Deputy Director Willow Hetrick. 

“Traditional food practices of hunting, fishing, and gathering are declining. Traditional foods are becoming scarce, and people are relying more and more on outside support,” she says. “But that support comes in forms that our bodies aren’t meant to tolerate, and that has led to increasing rates of cancer, diabetes and obesity.”

In the Chugach Region, more hardship hit with a 1964 earthquake, along with the famous Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1989. Hetrick explains that these two compounding issues were devastating to the Alutiiq People – their food, their self-reliance, and their future.

The CRRC, an inter-tribal fish and wildlife commission that was formed in 1984 to promote Tribal sovereignty and protect and manage natural resources, has had their work cut out for them. 

The CRCC earned the 2019 Arts and Humanities Award in the field of Distinguished Service to Education from the Governor of Alaska. Pictured here with the award are: (From left to right) Kelly Tshibaka, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration; Patty Schwalenberg, Executive Director of CRRC; Robert Heinrichs, current CRRC Board Member from the Native Village of Eyak; and Beth Pipkin, former Board member from the Chenega IRA Council.

The CRCC earned the 2019 Arts and Humanities Award in the field of Distinguished Service to Education from the Governor of Alaska. Pictured here with the award are: (From left to right) Kelly Tshibaka, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration; Patty Schwalenberg, Executive Director of CRRC; Robert Heinrichs, current CRRC Board Member from the Native Village of Eyak; and Beth Pipkin, former Board member from the Chenega IRA Council.

Setting out for knowledge

Representing the Tatitlek Village IRA Council, Native Village of Eyak (Cordova), Port Graham Village Council, Nanwalek IRA Council, Chenega Bay IRA Council, Qutekcak Native Tribe (Seward), and the Valdez Native Tribe, the CRRC is a leader in Tribal Natural Resources in Alaska. As such the organization leads local projects surrounding research, education, economic development, and enhancement of subsistence species. 

One project involves the region’s traditional foods – how accessible they are, how important they are, how they are being used, and what needs to be done to protect and manage them. With a belief that “food is life,” the CRRC sought funding through First Nation’s Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative to conduct data analysis and a workshop. 

The grant funding kicked off with a four-day training on food assessments hosted by First Nations, which Hetrick says gave all grantees a baseline start on best practices. 

“They believed in us,” she says, “And they put us in touch with a program officer who really understood the intricacies of working in a rural, offset region like Alaska.”

From there, the CRRC set out to design, distribute and collect food surveys from over 100 respondents to provide a high-level analysis of the situation. Their food assessment collection tool was unique in that it focused not just on consumption, but on food as a whole, explains Hetrick. 

“This is an over-surveyed population. People are polled routinely by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and others about food on a technical level, with questions such as ‘How many ounces of salmon do you consume a day?’”

Instead, the CRRC tool focused on food as a whole. 

“Food is life,” she says. “Food is part of our culture. It’s the holistic act of hunting, fishing, and gathering. It’s not just about eating berries, but it’s also about the walk to get those berries.”

Another important aspect of the survey is that it covered a broad region, adds Chelsea Kovalcsik, the Indian General Assistance Program Regional Environmental Coordinator for CRRC. 

“As a regional organization, we recognized that some questions might apply to the Port Graham area, but it may be different 200 miles away. We took into account a broad range of geography, with different approaches to food in each one.”

The survey resulted in a 40-page report that goes beyond government statistics and reveals the day-to-day food systems in place in these Native communities. It’s a snapshot of the Alutiiq People, their relationship with food, and the status of their health and natural resources. Further, insights from the surveys have fueled other investigations into salmon health, ocean shellfish, and dietetics and helped the organization leverage additional funding sources to advance more research.

Research that Empowers

Still, the organization recognized that a 40-page report on a shelf would be only that: a 40-page report on the shelf. Instead, to be useful, the information would need to be extracted, made into digestible information, and shared. At that point, the CRRC applied for an additional grant from First Nations to break out the data into a visual presentation. What resulted was a large-scale poster depicting specific foods of each area and local hunting, fishing, and gathering practices. The poster, which ultimately earned the CRRC the 2019 Arts and Humanities Award in the field of Distinguished Service in Education from the Governor of Alaska, has given people something they could use and refer to on their own, to understand traditional foods and celebrate their food as life.

1712_Color Poster_36_small

Moreover, it has become a tool for the People. Kovalcsik explains that these communities are inundated with “experts” coming in and asking questions, yet they are never shown where their answers go. With the poster, they have been given more control. 

“It gave power back to the Tribes,” says Kovalcsik. “They can visualize the changes we’re seeing. It’s given them that power to own their food, their own sovereignty.”

Another objective achieved by the CRRC was the production of an 80-page recipe book, which was created by including blank recipe cards in the surveys and asking respondents to complete and return them. From this outreach, they gleaned dozens of traditional recipes, plus traditional ways of harvesting and preparing foods, and they combined this with more recipes found through a library literature search. 

“This was traditional Native knowledge documented in old books, but sitting on shelves in basements,” says Hetrick. “Now, people can access them and those foods can live on.”

Knowledge for the future

These traditional foods projects have provided a foundation for the CRRC and a great data set to build from, says Kovalcsik. And it has produced visual guides to show how food is indeed life – how everything is connected — and the work surrounding traditional foods ties in with the organization’s overall approach to climate change, seawater quality, ocean acidification and other issues. 

“Now we have more information and we can let community members know what’s going on,” she says. “From there we can do more training, more on-the-ground programs. It gives us a place to start.” 

Hetrick adds that the work lends itself to further efforts toward food sovereignty – how the Tribes import food, how we consume, and how we teach people how to reside off the land, fish and wildlife. It has helped heal the generational trauma caused by the oil spill, increasing education about the resources Tribes have now, and the resources that were lost. And it has propelled partnerships that they had not known about, including with organizations in the lower 48. 

“We don’t have to recreate the wheel,” she says. “We may have unique challenges in Alaska, but everyone is facing challenges throughout Native communities everywhere. Together, we can raise each other up.”

 By Amy Jakober

Dressed to Dance: Fostering Dakota Culture and Pride

The Wikosa/Wiciyenna Dance Regalia Project builds on Dakota Wichoan's established youth outreach efforts, including the Koska Boys Leadership Program and the Wikosa & Wiciyenna Girls Leadership Program.

The Wikosa/Wiciyenna Dance Regalia Project builds on Dakota Wichoan’s established youth outreach efforts, including the Koska Boys Leadership Program and the Wikosa & Wiciyenna Girls Leadership Program.

For one Dakota community in Minnesota, where youth are prone to low self-esteem, bad influences and suicide, something great is happening. Young people are designing and making their own regalia, reconnecting with their culture and an art form at risk of vanishing. Through funding from First Nations, Dakota Wicohan is providing kids opportunities to regain pride in who they are, and in doing so, changing health outcomes and transforming lives.

Building on progress

Dakota Wicohan is a cultural resource center focused on the celebration and transmission of Dakota cultural lifeways, arts, and language. The center brings together artists, activists, supporters, teachers, and learners, including elders and youth, in preserving Dakota traditions, providing a source of healing, and uniting people. 

Founded in 2002, the organization is a long-term grantee of First Nations through both the Native Arts Initiative and the Native Youth and Culture Fund. Through one of its most recent First Nations-funded projects, Dakota Wicohan expanded its arts programming with the Growing Dakota Artists Program. Now, with the latest grant from First Nations, the organization is again building on the power of art, this time with a purpose to further engage youth and provide new opportunities.

The need for Wicozani

For years, Dakota Wicohan has had success reaching youth. Through the Itancanpi Youth Leadership (Itancanpi) Program, which includes the Koska Boys Leadership Program and Wikoska & Wiciyena Girls Leadership Program, youth are learning Dakota ways as a foundation to make healthy lifestyle choices that will lead to high school graduation, college, and opportunities in which they’ll grow up to serve the community.

It is programming that is essential for these young people. According to Dakota Wicohan Program and Finance Director Eileen O’Keefe, Dakota have the state’s highest incidence of diabetes and the highest mortality rates, next to infants. Throughout the whole state of Minnesota, Native ninth-graders have the highest obesity rates among all other ninth-graders. And, Minnesota’s Native youth also have the lowest graduation rate in the state – the second-lowest in the United States.

Further, many of the youth living on or near the Lower and Upper Sioux Dakota communities in southwest Minnesota are in the foster care system and lack access and exposure to their Dakota heritage. As a result, their sense of culture and belonging is diminished, which can lead to poor academic, behavioral, and health outcomes.

To counter this, all youth programming of Dakota Wicohan is designed to improve decision-making skills and increase “Wicozani,” meaning mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Dakota Wicohan has found that the poorer youth rate their Wicozani, the greater their suicide ideation; and the greater their suicide ideation, the less important they viewed their Wicozani to be to their quality of life. Dakota Wicohan’s approach is based on the Dakota belief that strong Wicozani and suicidal ideation cannot coexist. Dakota Wicohan youth programming has been found to increase Wicozani, which has resulted in more youth graduating from high school, and fewer youth – only 1% – ending up in the juvenile justice system.

While these leadership programs have been effective at improving overall well-being and improving outcomes, Dakota Wicohan knew more could be done. The organization has a robust Tawokaga arts program for adults, and through it, some of the youth had some exposure to Native art forms. Still, there wasn’t an opportunity to reach more youth and to truly hone their artistic skills. And the power of art to further increase Wicozani was untapped.

Through the project, each girl learns artistry from a Dakota Wichohan artist, including textiles and the making of ribbon skirts.

Through the project, each girl learns artistry from a Dakota Wichohan artist, including textiles and the making of ribbon skirts.

Investing in regalia

Even more significant: The youth wanted to learn and were looking to take their involvement in traditional Dakota arts to a new level, says O’Keefe. In response, the organization sought to combine their expertise in arts programming for adults and leadership programming for youth and launch the Wikoska/Wiciyenna Dance Regalia Project.

 Initially formed as part of the Wikoska/Wiciyenna girls’ program, the project set out to recruit and train 10 young women from the Upper and Lower Sioux communities of Minnesota to design and construct their own Dakota dance regalia to wear at powwows. Through the project, each girl would learn from a Dakota Wicohan artist about textiles, beading, parfleche, and quilling, while being empowered to create something unique to them.

The benefits of this are twofold.

One, the program teaches artistry. Many of these girls have had exposure to crafts, dancing, and singing as individual activities, but they haven’t been empowered to bring all acts of culture together. Through this project, they’re able to make their own decisions regarding style and theme, get support and guidance from adult artists, and practice what they learn through a hands-on project. They learn textiles, which can include ribbon skirts and shawls; beading of moccasins, barrettes or hair ties; parfleche for other accessories like a purse, belt or knife sheath; and quilling for earrings or bracelets. Further what they create is personalized regalia that they can show to their community at powwows, school events, and the Prairie Days Festival at the Gibbs Farm in the Twin Cities.

Second, completing the project gives these girls a sense of accomplishment. And the ability to be part of Dakota ceremonial dance and wear the regalia gives them a chance to celebrate their Native heritage, which increases self-esteem and that important Wicozani.

Project Assistant Gianna Eastman, who grew up dancing in her own regalia, explains its power in promoting belonging and pride. Further, she says, not having the regalia can actually be a showstopper.

“Most times, having regalia is a requirement for powwow participation,” she says. “Through this project, these girls can be a part of it now, rather than just being spectators. And it’s even more special because they’re the ones who designed it and made it.”

Having regalia is not something that’s automatic in Native communities, especially in places like Morton, Minnesota, where many youths have little exposure to and are not connected with their Native heritage. “50% of these youth have some sort of barrier to being able to participate at this level,” says Eastman.

For many girls doing the project, dance is a lost art for their families and the older generations no longer have the knowledge to pass down. For others, there is the expense of the materials or lack of access to sewing machines. Others are in the foster care system and have no one in their lives who is invested in their cultural well-being. Others are at-risk youth who benefit from not only making the regalia but also having a safe place to come and meet with their peers and create something together.

Program Assistant Dory Stands says she can already see the confidence and pride in the girls. “They are so ambitious,” she says. “A big piece of this is that it’s so personal. The colors, all the symbols, design, yolk/skirt – everything is what they chose. So, they’re excited to be able to showcase it. Some of them even say, ‘I can’t wait to tell everyone that I did this myself.’”

Eastman adds, “In the area that we live in, it’s rural, and there’s still a division between Native and non-Native. For these girls, the regalia reinforces who they are, and lets them know it’s something to be proud of.”

Completed ribbon skirts and proud smiles for work well done!

Completed ribbon skirts and proud smiles for work well done!



















Dancing into the future

Going forward, Dakota Wicohan hopes to expand the program beyond the initial 10 students and make it a long-term focus for the organization, one that continues the knowledge and practice of Native art and that adds to the outcomes-based approach of its youth programming. The Dance project will be evaluated to determine its impact on increasing Wicozani, and how it indeed transforms the future of Dakota youth, their academics, health, and pride. Optimism is high based on initial feedback and the girls’ desire to meet more often and for longer.

Already, plans are underway to expand the program to bring on experienced dancers and to add more classes and participants. “People have lost these skills, but we’re slowly bringing them back,” says O’Keefe. “Now the younger ones can keep this lifeway alive. It’s an amazing opportunity right now.”

 By Amy Jakober

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