Gelvin Stevenson has served on the Board of Directors of First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) for more than 35 years, drawn to the organization by the Cherokee philosophy of people helping people. Through a career in business, finance, journalism and leadership in the Native community, he said he is proud to play a “small part” in bringing this philosophy to life and working with like-minded people to strengthen Native communities.
A Cherokee Heritage
Gelvin was born in Chelsea, Oklahoma, where his Cherokee grandparents had settled after moving north from Texas. His grandfather had been the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1941 to 1949, working to rebuild the tribal government that had been terminated by the federal government in 1898. Gelvin says that in his own modest way throughout his life, he has tried to continue the tradition of working together to support Native American people and institutions.
In Oklahoma, Gelvin and his mother stayed with his grandparents while his father served as a flight instructor in the U.S. Navy during World War II. When his father returned, the family moved to the farming community of Tarkio, Missouri, where his dad joined his brother to help run the family banking and farming businesses.
Gelvin went north to attend Carleton College in Minnesota, and then went on to get his Ph.D. in economics from Washington University in St. Louis.
Gelvin’s wife, Clara, whom he met one summer in California, joined him in St. Louis, where they both completed their Ph.Ds. Then, the couple moved to New York City to be closer to Clara’s family and her “hometown” of the South Bronx.
Returning to Roots
In New York, Gelvin embraced both his wife’s Puerto Rican culture and his Cherokee identity. He got involved with the American Indian Community House, where he served on the board for many years. He also consulted with the Committee for the Title IV Indian Education Act, ensuring Native students in city public schools got access and representation. In addition, he served on the council of a local Cherokee Society, where he and his family learned some of the language and participated in Cherokee rituals. This is when Gelvin developed an interest in string figures, the art of weaving a circle of string on your fingers, which he said is common to many Indigenous peoples.
Responding to Challenges
During this time, Gelvin was invited to join the board of First Nations. While on the board, he began writing about financial management. He also began providing training for several tribes as they began managing significant amounts of money that resulted – for some tribes – from the passage of the Native American Gaming Act.
“All of a sudden, a number of tribes had money, which they had never had,” he said.
Gelvin focused on consulting, setting up conferences and speaking with individuals and tribes about investment principals and managing “sudden wealth.” He also wrote a series of booklets and several articles for First Nations publications, including Indian Giver.
At the time, a challenge for the Native community was how to best handle financial resources. But he said tribal communities, whether or not they had gaming wealth, were also wrestling with how best to manage their often underappreciated non-monetary wealth of culture, spirituality, community, language and world view.
Here he sees the power of people helping people on a grassroots, local level, the way First Nations does. First Nations continues to provide technical assistance and hands-on training to help Native communities. He is proud that the organization has also evolved to address other serious issues in Native communities: food sovereignty, financial literacy, and youth engagement and leadership.
Gelvin said a strength of First Nations is the organizational sustainability. “We run a tight ship financially, with metrics, accountability and sound decisions about the ways we help,” he said. “We’re able to develop effective and creative programming that has impact for people and organizations on the ground.”
Gelvin is confident that, going forward, First Nations will continue to keep its focus on the reason it began: empowerment of Native people.
He sees First Nations expanding in areas where it is already active: organizational development, Native food, strengthening Native cultures on reservations and in urban areas, strengthening Native economies, and performing impactful research.
He also sees new needs developing in Native communities, which First Nations could help address. Challenges for Native people remain surrounding food and natural resources. There are also environmental issues: making homes and other buildings energy efficient; helping bring low-cost and renewable energy to reservations; cleaning up pollution from old mines, industries and waste storage; and improving water quality in waterways and in homes.
Gelvin asserts that as long as there are problems in Indian Country, there will be opportunities for First Nations to help strengthen Native communities.
To him, the work of First Nations all comes down to Gadugi – the Cherokee word meaning “coming together for the common good” or “people working together to help other people.” After all, he added, Digadatsele’i (“we belong to each other”).
By Amy Jakober