First Nations’ Michael Roberts is “Asset Builder Champion”

Mike Roberts accepting the ABC Award

Mike Roberts accepting the ABC Award

Michael E. Roberts, President and CEO of First Nations Development Institute, was honored in Washington, D.C. on April 20 with an “Asset Builder Champion” (ABC) award from the Center for Global Policy Solutions. The award ceremony was part of the 2016 Color of Wealth Summit, which is an effort under the Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative.

Besides Roberts, the other ABC award recipients were U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters and Charles Rangel, Pitzer College President-Elect Melvin Oliver, and Highlander Research and Education Center Board Member Meizhu Lui. They were honored for their significant contributions to addressing racial wealth disparities nationwide.

“While I am flattered to receive this award, it is far from an individual accomplishment,” Roberts noted. “In fact, the recognition for this work goes beyond First Nations itself. The real heroes in this effort are the communities we partner with and whose ideas and solutions we are lucky enough to get to invest in, as equal partners with these communities.”

ABC Award Flyer ImageRoberts, who is Tlingit, was appointed president of First Nations in 2005 after returning to the organization in 2003. He served previously as First Nations’ chief operating officer until 1997. In the interim, he worked in private equity, providing services for angel investors, a telecommunications fund, and a venture capital firm. He also worked at Alaska Native corporations and for local IRA councils. He taught a graduate course on venture capital at the University of Missouri (Kansas City) Bloch School of Business and an undergraduate entrepreneurship course at Haskell Indian Nations University. He serves on the board of First Nations and is chairman of the board of First Nations Oweesta Corporation. He is a steering committee member of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders Network and on the investment committee for the Three Affiliated Tribes. Roberts has held other advisory positions including as a board member for Native Americans in Philanthropy.

The Center for Global Policy Solutions is a 501(c)(3) think tank and action organization that labors in pursuit of a vibrant, diverse and inclusive world in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive in safe and sustainable environments. Its mission is to make policy work for people and their environments by advancing economic security, health, education and civic success for vulnerable populations. Its target groups include people of color, women, children and youth, older adults and low-income populations.

35 Years of History: A Look Back at Some Milestones

In observing our 35th Anniversary during 2015, we’ve been taking a look back at some of our history. We’ve been sharing some of these historical tidbits over the course of this year. Here’s our third installment:

  • In 1986, First Nations testified before Congress on land, trust funds reform, and BIA asset management.
  • In 1987, the Umatilla Land Project begins. Based on the model established at Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation, First Nations provides technical assistance for land consolidation efforts at other reservations.
  • In 1991, First Nations is a founding board member of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity. That same year, First Nations initiates a series of tribal investment workshops.
  • In 1993, First Nations provides information that the U.S. Justice Department will rely on in bringing successful legal actions against two border town banks for their lending policies toward Native Americans.
  • In 1998, First Nations formed its Native Assets Research Center, consolidating the organization’s long concentration on research as an instrument of policy reform.
  • In 1999, First Nations created a program called International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP). Today, IFIP is a separate 501(c)(3) organization based in San Francisco, California.
  • In 2002, First Nations establishes its Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative, or NAFSI.
  • In 2003, First Nations launches its Native Youth and Culture Fund.
  • In 2013, First Nations acquires its own building at 2432 Main Street in Longmont, Colorado.
  • By mid-year 2015, First Nations had given 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. (We announced our 1,000th-grant milestone with this press release on July 16.)

Shown at First Nations' 25th Anniversary event in 2005 are, L to R, First Nations President Mike Roberts, Peter and Jennifer Buffett of NoVo Foundation, and First Nations Founder Rebecca Adamson.


Donor Perspective: Thanksgiving Idea Evolves Into a Gift

Jessica's Thanksgiving meal

It’s just one of those strange-but-wonderful things that happen unexpectedly.

Poet and essayist Jessica Greenbaum, who was teaching at the time in the English Department of Barnard College (one of the “Seven Sisters”) in New York City as an adjunct assistant professor, was planning her Thanksgiving 2014 dinner with friends and family for her house in Brooklyn. She had an idea to make the event a bit different: While enjoying a good meal, she would also educate her guests about the American “First Thanksgiving” story.

Jessica Greenbaum - Photo by Leslie Jean-Bart

Being smart, however, Jessica was suspicious of the basic textbook version of that historic event, where the kindly-but-“savage” Indians and peaceful-but-starving colonists gather for a big feast and become best friends forever.

So by way of emails and phone calls, she asked Mike Roberts, president of First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), about the Native American perspective on that First Thanksgiving. Needless to say, the story her guests ended up hearing was considerably different from the myths espoused by old textbooks, which are the ones many Americans take as truth because they learned it that way in elementary school.

Jessica learned from Mike that the colonist view as presented in the textbooks is quite unlike that of the original Indian inhabitants, and that what followed historically for Native nations was nothing for them to be thankful about. (Mike is like that. As a member of the Tlingit tribe and well-connected across Indian Country, he sees lots of “teachable moments” about American Indians and Alaska Natives, even if that teaching is directed at a respected professor and award-winning author like Jessica, who has just been granted a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to finish her third book.)

Through this process of discovery, Jessica became a first-time donor to First Nations, making a very generous online gift to the organization. For that, First Nations is very thankful. She also encouraged her Thanksgiving guests to support First Nations and other Native American charitable causes.

“I wanted to have an authentic response to the Thanksgiving holiday – I guess that comes from what I know through Judaism and our own traditions – so that’s why I contacted First Nations after finding you on Charity Navigator,” Jessica noted in a December phone interview. “I wanted something that felt like a true connection to the characters of the Thanksgiving story, and which would also benefit Native Americans.”

Jessica’s parents are first generation Americans, born to turn-of-the-century East European Jewish immigrants. They grew up very poor in New York City during the Depression, and met while going to a free city college. Both eventually would get graduate degrees and become professionals. Jessica grew up on Long Island, taking buses to Washington, D.C., to protest the Vietnam War and, later, in the second wave of feminism, for equal rights. She earned her B.A. in English at Barnard, collected an M.A. in English at the University of Houston, and recently added an L.M.S.W. in Social Work from New York University. She is married to attorney Jed Marcus, and they have two girls, ages 21 and 17.

“Until talking with Mike, I had a fairly low-level consciousness about Native culture in the U.S., and some of it may have been stereotypical in that I strongly or exclusively connected the idea of nature, land and natural co-existence to Native cultures, which I think many people do, without going much deeper than that,” Jessica said. “But I had a yearning to not be as distant from that culture as I had been, and that’s what drove me during this time. I’m delighted it led me to make a connection with First Nations.”

Jessica noted that she recognizes the chronic poverty and health issues that many Native communities face, and it’s another reason she chose to explore the American Indian perspective. “I felt there has been co-opting of the holiday – the ‘bounty’ and everything – and there was something about it that just wasn’t working for me, hasn’t ever really worked for me. Yet I’m surrounded by people for whom, because it’s not religious and because it’s a holiday of basic goodwill, it’s really their favorite of the year.

“When I found First Nations on Charity Navigator, I saw that it was highly respected and a top, four-star-rated charity,” she added. “After reading your website, I knew this was work I wanted to support and spread the word about.”

Jessica's second book, "The Two Yvonnes"

Jessica has been a writer since her childhood, concentrating on her poetry but also authoring essays and criticism. (Her third book is underway, and her previous two books are of poems, with the most recent published by the Princeton University Press). In an attempt to make a contribution beyond her art, she began raising money for women and girls in the developing world by selling homemade muffins outside her house to pedestrians headed to and from an upscale flea market nearby. She especially works toward ending female genital mutilation, forced marriage and human trafficking. On her radar currently is facilitating the pilot program for a poetry reading and writing group with participants in the Center for Disease Control’s health program for 9/11 first responders.

“My hope for this story is that Indian communities will know that many non-Indian Americans DO have a sense of the bones and the ghosts and the injustices that have led us to the present day,” Jessica concluded. “By me learning more, spreading the word, sending a contribution and urging others to do likewise, we can help develop the community of people working toward First Nations’ goals.”

First Nations’ supporters come from all walks of life, all backgrounds, and all corners of the U.S. and beyond. We warmly welcome Jessica to our family and into our Native circle.

(As a further note to the story, Jessica has contributed her considerable writing expertise to helping First Nations craft a story that will likely be used later this year in First Nations’ Thanksgiving-related mailings and communications.)

By Randy Blauvelt, First Nations Senior Communications Officer, with Jessica Greenbaum

Blackboard in Jessica's class at Barnard, where on the last day students wrote what they most wanted to remember

Join Us in Supporting Native Children and Families

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) recognizes that Native American youth are the very future of their communities, and that ensuring their well-being is crucial to the prosperity of those communities. That’s why First Nations established to raise awareness of community-based organizations that are committed to this important work at the grassroots level.

First Nations is calling on conscientious donors interested in investing in the work of participating organizations to make a gift via and support nonprofits that are dedicated to strengthening and improving the lives of Native children and families.

“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

– Sitting Bull

“We are excited about being part of this project because it can help us to build a solid foundation of sustainability. We realize that in order to live to see our Native schools and communities evolve to be truly empowering, we must develop long-lasting programs and projects that don’t fit into the standard mold of federal and state grants, and finding the support for these innovative programs requires heartfelt support from many caring individuals,” said Mark Sorensen, founder of the STAR School just 40 miles east of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Consistent with Native American values of sharing and reciprocity, the goal of this unique initiative is to increase giving to philanthropic efforts in Native communities. Right now only three-tenths of one percent of foundation funding goes to Native causes, while Native Americans represent over two percent of the U.S. population. This disparity is compounded by the fact that the Native population has some of the highest rates of poverty, food insecurity, diet-related illness and the poorest educational outcomes.

To address this inequity, First Nations launched this website to leverage its national influence to direct more investments to worthy nonprofits such as those featured on this site. The featured nonprofits have developed successful and innovative projects that promote educated kids, healthy kids and secure families.

“First Nations has long known that developing a strong and healthy nonprofit sector in Native communities is one key to economic diversification and service delivery,” said First Nations President Michael E. Roberts. “This program will expand the reach of local Native nonprofits and improve charitable giving to Native causes and communities.”

In its own grantmaking process, First Nations has vetted each of the participating organizations. In addition to assisting them in raising funds through this site, First Nations is also providing technical assistance to build the management and fundraising expertise of each organization during this pilot project so they can sustain their critical programs for years to come.

Please browse the profiles of these organizations at, and then select one or more of them to support. Fully 100 percent of donations received through will go toward the selected organization’s mission. is a project of First Nations and is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation under the foundation’s “Catalyzing Community Giving” initiative.

Website a Resource for Native Food & Agriculture Efforts

A new website was launched on April 15 that aims to become a valuable online resource for Native American tribes, organizations and individuals who are involved in food systems and agricultural efforts, and/or who are aiming for better health and nutrition for their families and communities.

The site is  It was created by First Nations, with funding provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. For more than 32 years, First Nations has been working to restore Native American control and culturally-compatible stewardship of the assets they own – be they land, human potential, cultural heritage or natural resources – and to establish new assets for ensuring the long-term vitality of Native Homepage screenshotAmerican communities. Part of this effort centers on food, through First Nations’ Native Agriculture and Food System Initiative, or NAFSI.

Under NAFSI, First Nations also provides grants to numerous food and agricultural efforts by tribes and nonprofit organizations, and recently announced the awarding of 10 such grants totaling $375,000. First Nations, in partnership with the Taos County Economic Development Corporation in Taos, New Mexico, is also working to create the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, which is intended to become a sustainable and organized movement that is Native American driven and controlled, nationally active and dedicated to addressing food security, hunger and nutrition in Native American communities at the national, tribal and local levels.

“We believe that our work in the food sector has many benefits, all of which are critically important,” noted Michael E. Roberts, president of First Nations.  “These include improved Native health and nutrition, of course, but also a reconnection with traditional foods and a reinforcement of our cultural practices and customs.  Further, regaining control of food systems can provide a huge and much-needed boost to the development of Native economies.”

The new website features a diverse variety of resources and information, ranging from tribal gardens, farms and markets, to youth programs and farm-to-school efforts, to seed saving, to traditional plants and medicine, to food marketing and handling, to home gardening, canning and healthy family eating. The site was designed and built by First Nations Project Officer Ruben Hernandez, and research and content was provided by Andrea Cournoyer of Plain Depth Consulting.

By Raymond Foxworth, First Nations Senior Program Officer

Production Underway on New Television PSAs

On location at the Institute of American Indian Arts, IAIA’s Luke Reed is taped in the campus garden.

Through a generous grant from Comcast and the Comcast Foundation, First Nations will be launching two PSAs (public service announcements) later this year.  The television “commercials” will run on Comcast cable TV systems in several markets around the U.S.

In early May 2013, folks from First Nations and its production company, Red 76 Creative in Denver, Colorado, traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to do the on-location videotaping for the PSAs.  We are especially grateful to Santo Domingo Pueblo and the Institute of American Indian Arts for helping us secure various locations, along with numerous volunteer tribe members, students, staffers and officials to be our “actors.”

Some of the video footage will be used for two 30-second PSAs, and other footage will be

A scene from one of the Comcast PSAs: Shana Coriz holds seeds at Santo Domingo Pueblo.

used for a short video that First Nations will use on its website, on its social media pages, and on its YouTube channel. We don’t want to give away the “plots” of the PSAs quite yet, but one is tentatively titled “Seed” and one is called “Dream.”

We first announced the grant back in January 2013.  The Comcast Foundation provided $20,000 to fund production of the PSAs, plus $1 million worth of airtime from Comcast to broadcast them. The grant was in recognition of Comcast’s commitment to the communities where its customers and employees live and work.

Michael Roberts, president First Nations Development Institute.

At the time, Michael E. Roberts, president of First Nations, said:  “There is such an urgent need in American Indian communities for the economic development work that we do, but we can only grow our reach, capacity and successes by building more public awareness and understanding of the issues involved with Native American communities.  This grant will be a huge step toward creating that heightened awareness and understanding, plus hopefully attracting more charitable dollars for our efforts.”

Bill Black, vice president and executive director of the Comcast Foundation, said, “First Nations is universally recognized as the longtime leader in economic development in Indian Country, and Comcast is proud to be their partner in this important initiative. Comcast and the Comcast Foundation are committed to helping improve communities nationwide so that everyone, regardless of economic circumstances, has an opportunity to pursue a better life.”

By Randy Blauvelt, First Nations Senior Communications Officer