First Nations Development Institute: A Look Back to the Beginning

In observance of First Nations Development Institute’s 35th anniversary this year, we’d like to share this retrospective article on the beginnings and growth of the organization, along with a separate timeline sidebar to the story.

Creation Story

Thomas Vigil

“The history of First Nations is very simple. It was created to be an advocate for Indian people.” ―Thomas Vigil (Jicarilla Apache/Jemez Pueblo), Chairman of the Board, First Nations Development Institute

First Nations Financial Project – later renamed First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) – was founded in 1980, but many events led up to that moment. The 20th century was filled with Indian activism (National Congress of American Indians, Native American Rights Fund, American Indian Movement), court cases (Winters v. United States) and laws (Indian Finance Act, 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act) which laid the groundwork for much of the work to come, including the economic development work of the future First Nations.

Sherry Salway Black

“I don’t think there’s a real understanding of those early movements that led the way to what tribal leaders did and what community activists did,” says Sherry Salway Black (Oglala Lakota), who served as senior vice president and board member of First Nations from 1985-2005. “There has been tremendous growth in development and it has all been around control of assets, whether it’s institutions of government, institutions of learning, natural resources, financial resources.”

Rebecca Adamson

First Nations’ founder, Rebecca Adamson (Cherokee), was employed by the Coalition of Indian Controlled Schools in the late ’70s, and was very much a product of the times. These were heady days in the circles of Indian activism. “I was very much in the front line on the Indian school work,” Adamson now says, “Nobody gave you a manual … it was really wide open.”

“Every single time I got sent to a community it was a bad situation because it was horrific, but at the same time it was inspiring in the sense of the brilliance and the problem solving … I would find in our communities,” Adamson adds. She took away two lessons from this experience: one, that the answers to community problems were right there in the communities; and two, bureaucracy (specifically the paternalistic Bureau of Indian Affairs bureaucracy) was more the problem than the answer.

Siobhan Oppenheimer-Nicolau

The creation story of First Nations goes something like this: With some seed money from the Administration for Native Americans, Adamson went to New York to knock on the doors of foundations. She had no contacts. She managed to get into the Ford Foundation and talk to a program manager named Siobhan Oppenheimer-Nicolau (to become known fondly as “Oppie”) – who, as neither knew that day, would become a board member of a yet-to-exist organization named First Nations Development Institute. As the story goes, Adamson requested $25,000 and Oppie asked what she wanted to do with the money. Adamson replied that she didn’t know, but the people in the communities she wanted to serve would. And with a $25,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, First Nations was born.

Michael Roberts

Current First Nations President Mike Roberts (Tlingit) is familiar with this creation story. “As Indian people, we love creation stories, and that’s a particularly good one,” he says. “For me, and more importantly for the lasting legacy of the organization, this creation story has two huge takeaways: that imperfect action beats perfect inaction every time, and that first Nations’ work should be guided by and responsive to the communities with whom we work.”

Early Years

And so First Nations set off to be a force of action in Native communities. “It was intellectually and emotionally stimulating in the sense that (we constantly asked ourselves) how can we use our resources to help our people? And we were constantly thinking, challenged to come up with new ideas,” Salway Black recalls, likening First Nations to a think tank. Today, Roberts characterizes First Nations as Indian country’s “think and do tank.”

Perhaps the most glaring need was access to capital on reservations and other Indian communities. Adamson partnered with Richard Sherman and conducted a study of private-sector economic activity on the Pine Ridge Reservation. There were plenty of entrepreneurs – and, more to the point, would-be entrepreneurs – who needed access to items as simple as air pumps or locksmithing equipment. “Through these conversations, we knew we were going to make really small loans,” Adamson recalls, “We didn’t have the language of microenterprise.”

Along with Oglala Lakota College, First Nations helped the Pine Ridge community create the Lakota Fund by 1985, making it the first reservation-based microenterprise peer–lending fund. More importantly, this was the first peer-lending microenterprise fund anywhere in the U.S. This was no small accomplishment, yet it is just one of many legacies First Nations has left in its first 35 years.

A year later, First Nations launched the Oweesta Program and Fund (Oweesta is the Mohawk word for money) in order to further help Native Americans – many of whom were unbanked (and in many cases still are), that is, not holding a bank account – to access capital on a personal or business level. Oweesta opened the first intermediary Native Community Development Financial Institution, or CDFI, which as a category includes banks, credit unions and loan funds. As of mid-2015, there were 70 Native CDFIs.

“We really tore up the landscape in leading conceptually and changing the whole debate,” Adamson says, looking back.

Elements of Development

Gelvin Stevenson

For First Nations, access to capital would have little use without a deeper sense and commitment to financial literacy and a deeper understanding of money and markets. “Often, financial knowledge is passed down in families. And among peer groups. And given what Native peoples have been through, that just wasn’t going to happen with us,” says Gelvin Stevenson (Western Cherokee), a First Nations board member. Stevenson, who holds a Ph.D. in economics, previously worked with the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin as a financial consultant to its trust fund and casino earnings. He evaluated money managers for both financial performance and cultural appropriateness. “Ethical investments,” Stevenson explains, “So they can make them work for themselves and their children and grandchildren and on and on.”

“When you don’t control your assets and others do, they tend to benefit (the non-Indians who often do control the Indian country assets) – often at the expense of Native people,” Stevenson continues.

In 1990, First Nations helped to create the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association on Indian Trust Funds (ITMA) and hired Eloise Cobell. First Nations later supported numerous allottee organizations as they attempted to trace records of historical allotments and royalties owed on allotments from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. First Nations’ work with the ITMA and financial support of allottee organizations across the U.S. eventually lead to the Cobell v. Salazar class-action lawsuit that was finally settled in 2009 with claimants winning $3.4 billion in damages for mismanagement of trust assets.

And the outdated notion in Western economics that economies are without inherent values simply never fit within a Native context. In 1991 First Nations presented a Native-centric evaluation of financial development, called the Elements of Development. An image of the elements looks like a compass and the four cardinal directions point to not only Control of Assets, but also Kinship, Spirituality and Personal Efficacy, along with other points on the wheel.

While many other forms of Native entrepreneurship and asset control have been glossed over, it is true that gaming has provided an economic influx into Indian country like nothing else. With this newfound wealth, a number of tribes have benefited from the financial and investment education that First Nations has provided, beginning even before the 2001 publication that launched the Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families curriculum, a culturally appropriate guide to financial and later investment education in Native communities.

“One of the very first things that First Nations Financial Project did in the 1980s was to look at how we better control our financial assets. And that’s all about financial education,” says Salway Black. “From the very, very beginning we were involved in financial education, whether it was the investment in how tribes controlled their trust funds (to) when we worked with the Native loan fund, CDFIs (to) looking at assets, capital and credit – that was all about financial education.”

Becoming a Grantmaker

The early, scrappy, bootstrapping years of First Nations saw the organization supporting the hopes and dreams of Indian communities – and working hard to raise funds for each and every project. In part this was because, in order to break from dependency on the federal government, First Nations did not accept any federal funding for the first 20 years.

In 1993 First Nations began making grants directly out of its newly created Eagle Staff Fund, which was established with support from a consortium of funders. The very first grants supported the InterTribal Bison Cooperative’s efforts to reintroduce buffalo to tribal lands as well as Alaska Native subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering rights.

The grantmaking out of the Eagle Staff fund continued to grow, and in 2002 First Nations created the Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI) with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and in 2003 it started the Native Youth and Culture Fund with support from Kalliopeia Foundation. An analysis of First Nations’ grantmaking at the time showed that more and more funding requests were coming in that were related to agriculture and food-related projects. In 2003 First Nations released its Food Sovereignty Assessment Tool. It is what it sounds like: a tool that Native communities can use to assess their level of food sovereignty versus food insecurity or food dependence.

It also allows communities to more fully understand the magnitude of dollars leaving the reservation to purchase food. Recently, Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico conducted a food sovereignty assessment. What the assessment found is that this 800-member pueblo was spending – exporting – $2 million a year on external food purchases. “Two million dollars is a lot of money, right?” First Nations President Mike Roberts asks. “That gets the tribal council’s attention and they are beginning to ask themselves how they can start intercepting some of this money and keep it turning over on the reservation.” That is, how can buying co-ops, farm stands, community-supported agriculture and the like keep some of these dollars in the community? “This is where economic development really starts to truly intersect.”

In 2015, the Healthy Diné Nation Act went into effect on the Navajo Nation. This was a huge win for the community and could eventually prove to be a larger win for Indian country as a whole. First Nations was lucky enough to have the opportunity to support the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance in the organizing efforts leading up to and through the passage of the act. The Navajo Nation Council in 2014 passed the first junk food tax in the United States – other municipalities had taxed sugary beverages (and others failed to do so), but this measure is the first to tax all junk food.

“I’m a big believer that you can do things in Indian country that can’t happen anywhere else, because of tribal jurisdiction and because some of these tribal communities are often more homogeneous than communities elsewhere,” Roberts says. “And in some ways because of their isolation … The outside influence is not there. I think Indian country can lead the rest of the country and the rest of the world.”

Also, in mid-2015, First Nations passed the milestone of making its 1,000th grant and has since gone on to award 1,039 grants totaling $23.7 million to Native American projects and organizations in 37 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territory American Samoa. The total includes grants under First Nations’ Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative, plus 305 grants to Native youth and culture programs throughout the U.S. totaling $5.13 million under the Native Youth and Culture Fund, and hundreds of other grants and activities – including technical assistance and training – relating to nonprofit capacity-building, financial and investor education, combating predatory lending, and scholarships. Recipients have included Native nonprofit and service organizations, tribal nations, tribal government departments, tribal colleges, and in the case of scholarships, to Native American college students as well as other individuals seeking professional development.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

One thousand-plus grants funding Native entrepreneurs. Dozens of Community Development Financial Institutions. Several spinoff organizations including First Nations Oweesta Corporation, First Peoples Worldwide, the Indian Land Working Group, and the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples. Research and advocacy. Technical training. These are all legacies of First Nations Development Institute 35 years on. And the changes in Indian country are manifest as well. Higher per-capita income. More individuals with bank accounts and access to capital. Per-capita payments to members of gaming tribes.

“First Nations has established institutions and activities on countless reservations that continue every day and will – if I can use the term – forever,” says board member Stevenson. The impacts have been personal for those closely involved in the organization as well. Stevenson adds, “I tell you, you have never had a better time or laugh more than at a First Nations board meeting.”

Board chair Thomas Vigil agrees. “There were periods of time when we thought we weren’t going to survive, but we did somehow,” he says. “We had so much fun. It’s ridiculous sometimes when you don’t have hardly any money but you want to do big things – you just have to laugh.”
And to be sure, the work is not finished.

By Mary Reed, Freelance Journalist

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