Board Profile: First Nations Chair Thomas Vigil

Chairman Thomas Vigil

Chairman Thomas Vigil

Beyond the grants, past the technical assistance, and before becoming a nonprofit organization, First Nations was formed to be a voice and advocate for Indian people. “It’s why we started, and it’s what we still do,” says B. Thomas Vigil (Jicarilla Apache/Jemez Pueblo), longtime Chairman of the Board and one of the first board members of First Nations Development Institute.

Reflecting on the world he was born into in the 1940s, and the world we live in now, he says the need for this voice continues today.

“The rest of the country has had a 250-yard head start on us, and we have a long way to catch up,” he says.

Indians in a “Desperate State”

Vigil was born on a reservation and raised in a tent behind a shed made from waste lumber.

“This was my life. We were poor. But I wasn’t unique,” he says. “People either grew up and left the reservation, or they stayed, and many died drunk.”

Tom addresses the gathering at First Nations' 35th Anniversary celebration in 2015

Tom addresses the audience at First Nations’ 35th Anniversary celebration in 2015

When state schools were made available, Vigil and many of his classmates were tested and determined to be “illiterate.” Vigil himself didn’t learn to read or write until high school. And because Indians “did not pay taxes” they were not even given the right to serve on the school board.

Vigil called together school leaders, rallied students and parents, and sought a voice for Indian people. By the time he graduated, New Mexico changed the laws, and Indians were on the board and voting for their schools.

From there, Vigil went on to New Mexico Highlands University, where he earned a degree in economics/accounting in 1968. After graduation, he began his first job as a staff accountant for the University of New Mexico. Part of his job was to help tribes set up the accounting processes needed to become community action agencies – an essential component for them to receive federal grants under the War on Poverty.

Again, he saw a world that echoed his experience on the reservation. Indians either had no resources, or they weren’t allowed to manage them, Vigil explains.

“We had no freedom. We were wards of the government,” he says. “We were completely in bondage. Government had all the control.”

A Time for Change

A young Tom Vigil

A young Tom Vigil

A lot would happen over the next decades that would have an impact socially and politically on the life of Indians, and Vigil’s career intersected with these changes at several points.

He left his job at the University of New Mexico to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, thinking that the environment for Indians could be changed by working within a government agency. Yet, there he didn’t see people working to make lives better for Indian people. “They were just sitting around being bureaucrats,” he says.

From there he was recruited to be a contracts officer for the Department of Labor in Los Angeles. At that time, President Nixon introduced revenue sharing, opening up federal funding to the states. Vigil was assigned several California counties and cities of over 400,000 people to help them access and manage the funding, teaching them how to use it and what it could be used for. This experience led to a position as coordinator of strategic planning in the Mayor’s Office for the City of Los Angeles, and concurrently to an official appointment by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Commission. Work in Los Angeles also provided the opportunity to receive a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Southern California.

The Chairman celebrating his 70th birthday in December 2014 with staff and other Board members

The Chairman celebrating his 70th birthday in December 2014 with staff and other Board members

Around that time, President Nixon also announced his Indian Policy and the concept of self-determination. This would lead to the creation of the Indian Self-Determination Act, which established a government-to-government relationship between Indian people and the United States of America. When the Ford administration carried the act on, Vigil was brought to Washington to help conceptualize and implement the policy through the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Health and Human Services.

While the legislation was a long time coming, he says, many Indians were not ready for it, and some were actually opposed to it. They feared that the Bureau of Indian Affairs would no longer be providing the services Indians had been accustomed to. They were used to just accepting whatever the Bureau of Indian Affairs said as gospel, and they did not know how important self-government was.

“One of my jobs was to go around the country and talk to Indians,” he says. “Over time, we won them over.”

The Start of First Nations

Original FNDI LogoVigil could see that more had to be done to align tribes and help them fully understand what sovereignty and self-determination meant. In 1978, Vigil worked with Rebecca Adamson and David Lester to conceptualize an organization that would continue the battle. That organization ultimately became First Nations Development Institute.

Early on, First Nations also gave birth to the notion of a specialized arm to address the lack of capital and financial infrastructure holding back economic development in Native communities. This notion became First Nations Oweesta Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary that supports economic growth in Native American communities through the creation, development and capitalization of Native Community Development Financial Institutions, or CDFIs.

First Nations President and CEO Michael Roberts says Vigil’s background was essential to First Nations back then and going forward. “It is Tom’s perspective having come from and being part of his community – along with his broader perspective of Indian Country history and self-determination – that has provided much of the grounding First Nations enjoys today.”

Indeed, Vigil says an essential tenet of First Nations is that it would be funded by private donors and not the government. “That’s why other organizations failed. We had to be sure we were not run by something that had controlled us, or could try to control us in the future.”

FNDI Stacked Logo.pngA second tenet is that the organization would not take a political position. This neutrality would keep First Nations focused on helping Indians and ensure the organization was not swayed by any political parties or agendas. Finally, a third tenet is that the organization would not become public relations focused. Instead it would let its work speak for itself, with the accomplishments of Indians being its key message.

In the early 1980s, First Nations was formally organized and Vigil became chairman in 1982.

“We’re one of the longest existing Indian organizations. But you can’t think about First Nations without thinking about the history of Native American people in this country,” he says. “It’s not about what we’ve done or what we’re doing. It’s about who we are as Indian people, where we came from, and who we are today. That’s what First Nations is really about.”

Roberts agrees. “Whenever we get a little too big-headed around here, it is Tom’s counsel that keeps coming back – we don’t do things in Indian Country, we invest in the genius of Indian people and Indian communities. Our job is to provide a little capital, a little technical assistance, and a heaping scoop of peer networking – and then get the heck out of the way so the real work can happen.”

Returning to His Roots

Since his work in Washington, Vigil has returned to Dulce, New Mexico, where he launched a successful career in hospitality and in the Indian gaming business. And here he continues serving on multiple boards, including the Board of First Nations.

He reflects on his childhood and a time he escorted a high-level political figure on a trip to a nearby reservation. The visitor pointed out with wonder at the makeshift structures on a distant hillside. “You think they’re shacks,” Vigil told the visitor. “But people live there. Those are homes.”

Vigil explains that this is where his people came from and what they were up against. And while Indians have come a long way in catching up on the 250-yard head start the rest of the country has had, what will always be needed is the voice for Indian people.

“It will take some time to grow out of that,” he says. “But we will. We will keep speaking out.”

By Amy Jakober

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.

Grants Get Our 35th Year Off to Good Start

During 2015 First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is observing the 35th anniversary of its founding in 1980. Several foundation grants have been received recently that will help us celebrate the year in a good way — by allowing us to continue or expand our work in several areas across Indian Country.

W.K. Kellogg Foundation

In the continuing effort to improve the health of Native American children and families and boost the economic health of Native communities, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) has awarded First Nations a grant of $2.95 million to extend First Nations’ work in the area of Native agriculture and food systems for three years, 2015 through 2017.

First Nations will use the continuing funding to support additional projects that advance the building and strengthening of local food-system infrastructure in Native American communities. A request-for-proposals process was recently announced for the first year of projects under the new grant. All NAFSI projects aim to enhance Native control of their local food systems – especially in addressing issues such as food insecurity, food deserts, and health and nutrition – while simultaneously bolstering much-needed economic development in those communities.

WKKF has been a significant and longtime supporter of First Nations’ work under its Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI), including supporting the creation of NAFSI in 2002 and ever since. In 2012, WKKF provided $2.89 million to First Nations for a two-year period to support NAFSI efforts.

Comcast NBCUniversal

Comcast NBCUniversal has provided airtime valued at $2 million to promote First Nations’ public service announcements on cable channels during March and December 2015.

This is the third year in a row that Comcast NBCUniversal has made a significant contribution of broadcast time for First Nations’ 30-second television spots. During 2014, Comcast NBCUniversal also donated $2 million in airtime, and in 2013 it donated more than $1.5 million in airtime, along with $20,000 in cash for production of the two TV spots. As in 2014, the 2015 spots will run in 30 different Comcast markets nationwide.

The Comcast Foundation also has supported other projects of First Nations, most notably providing $150,000 over three years toward First Nations’ Urban Native Project.

Walmart Foundation

The Walmart Foundation has awarded First Nations a grant of $500,000 to support a project aimed at building the organizational and programmatic capacity of Native American tribes and organizations focused on cattle and/or bison ranching. The one-year project will also focus on improving their management of natural resources, engaging younger community members in ranching businesses, and/or expanding access to new markets.

This is the second time the Walmart Foundation has provided a significant grant for First Nations’ work in the area of Native agriculture and food systems. In 2012 the Walmart Foundation granted $500,000 to First Nations to develop or expand locally controlled and locally based food systems in numerous Native American communities while addressing the critical issues of food security, family economic security, and health and nutrition, along with promoting American Indian business entrepreneurship.

Under the new project, First Nations will work with three selected Native ranching groups or tribal organizations as primary project partners. They will receive financial grants that can be used for infrastructure improvements, equipment, training or consulting services to advance their operations. They will also receive instruction on improving herd health, improving land-management practices, and accessing new markets.

Further, the project partners along with an additional 10 Native ranchers will be sent to the Third Annual Native Food Sovereignty Summit that First Nations and the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin are co-hosting in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in October 2015. This will generate significant networking and learning opportunities for the individuals as well as strengthen the capacity of the entire rancher group.

Margaret A. Cargill Foundation

First Nations was awarded a significant grant for a project to explore and inform tribal ecological stewardship practices in the Great Plains of South Dakota and Montana.

The grant will allow First Nations to provide a forum to consider the relationship between responsible ecological stewardship practices and economic development strategies for tribally controlled areas of the northern Great Plains region. Longer-term goals include visioning and actively moving toward implementation of economic-ecological models developed for and by the tribes in the region.

Further, First Nations will provide capacity-building and networking activities that will build the tribal capacity and ecological sustainability in the region, as well as addressing dynamic situations and issues for long-term planning and stewardship of tribally controlled natural resources.

This project is supported in part with a grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation of Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

Agua Fund

First Nations was awarded a $50,000 grant from Agua Fund, Inc. of Washington, D.C., for a project under First Nations’ Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI).

The grant will allow First Nations to provide financial assistance and capacity-building training to two Native tribes or organization focused on ending hunger and improving nutrition and access to healthy foods in Native communities. Participants will be located in the Sioux communities of North Dakota and/or South Dakota. Priority will be given to projects aimed at increasing the availability of healthy, locally-produced foods in Native American communities; reducing food insecurity; entrepreneurship; and/or programs that create systemic change by increasing community control of local food systems. Priority also will be given to organizations that can assist in the development of emerging and promising practices in strengthening Native food systems.

Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment

The Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, based in Oakland, California, has awarded First Nations a grant of $40,000 to fund a project aimed at improving the financial capability of Native American families.

With the grant, First Nations will work in partnership with its subsidiary, First Nations Oweesta Corporation (Oweesta), to update and revise its well-known and widely used “Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families” (BNC) curriculum, including the instructor guide and participant workbook. An advisory group of experts in Native American financial education will guide the process as well as the culturally appropriate content, which was last updated in 2010. The BNC training is easy to use in tribal programs, schools and Native nonprofit organizations. Since its creation, nearly 20,000 people have been reached, and it is used as a curriculum at several tribal colleges.

As First Nations and Oweesta roll out the improved curriculum, it is expected that Native American training participants will improve their financial capability and savings/budgeting habits to better accumulate and manage financial assets. Their circumstances will be improved by learning principles of and ideas for best financial management practices that are relevant to Native Americans’ situations and how these may be introduced or incorporated into budgeting, use of credit, use of financial institutions’ services, long-term asset-building, and increased saving for the future.

Compiled by Randy Blauvelt, First Nations Senior Communications Officer

35 Years of History: A Look Back at Some Milestones

Photo from First Nations' 1996/97 Biennial Report (Photo by Owen Seumptewa, courtesy of The Hitachi Foundation)

In observing our 35th Anniversary during 2015, we’ve been taking a look back at some of our history. We’ll be sharing some of these historical tidbits with you by way of this newsletter over the rest of the year. Here are three milestones from the earliest years:

  • In 1980, First Nations Financial Project (renamed First Nations Development Institute in 1991) was founded with a $25,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, making First Nations the first nonprofit social enterprise exclusively committed to Native control of tribal assets. www.firstnations.org
  • In 1982, First Nations began research for its Oweesta Program (from the Mohawk word for money), and established the program in 1986. In 1999, the Oweesta Program became First Nations Oweesta Corporation, which is an independent subsidiary of First Nations. Oweesta is a certified national Native community development financial institution (CDFI). Oweesta’s programs and services include lending, capacity building, financial education and asset-building. www.oweesta.org
  • In 1985-86, First Nations assisted in the creation of The Lakota Funds on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the first Native American community development financial institution (CDFI) in the U.S. www.lakotafunds.org

 

 

Denver-Area Indian Groups Learn to “Adapt”

A group shot of the seminar participants

In its mission to strengthen Native American nonprofit organizations, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) hosted a two-day Adaptive Leadership seminar in the Denver area in late June 2014.  About 25 participants from nearby American Indian organizations were invited to attend for free.

Adaptive Leadership is a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments. It is being able, both individually and collectively, to take on the gradual but meaningful process of adaptation. It is about diagnosing the essential from the expendable and bringing about a real challenge to the status quo. (Definition from Cambridge Leadership Associates.)

Dr. Begaye asks "What's the problem?"

Attendees included staff members of First Nations, the American Indian College Fund, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the Notah Begay III Foundation, Spirit of the Sun, the Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce, and First Nations Oweesta Corporation.

Dr. Timothy Begaye led the seminar.  He is a technical advisor to First Nations and serves as the director of education programs and special assistant to the provost at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico. Prior to his work at Navajo Technical University, Tim was faculty chair at the Center for Diné Teacher Education and an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Arizona State University. He also served as a teaching fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he taught courses on adaptive leadership and Native Nation Building. He holds a doctorate in education from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and assists colleges and universities in integrating Indigenous pedagogy both in the U.S. and abroad. His current research focuses on contemporary cultural challenges in Indigenous communities, social and cultural adaptation, and adaptive leadership.

The seminar was informative and thought-provoking. Participants found the training applicable to their own work and relevant to the constituents they serve. Over the course of two days, attendees learned how to use adaptive leadership strategies to diagnose and address problems or issues in their organizations, programs or communities.

 

A Sign of the Times?

First Nations Development Institute moved into its new building in Longmont, Colorado, at the end of April 2013.  We’re pretty much settled in, but still doing some fine-tuning and minor rearranging.

And finally — on July 10 — we got our new street sign installed, after obtaining city permits, getting bids from vendors, discussing the project with some of our building tenants, and working with our graphic designer.  The new signboard includes smaller signs for some of our tenants as well as our sister organization, which is First Nations Oweesta Corporation.

We think it’s a sign of the times … that we’ve settled into our permanent home, and that we continue to grow and expand our mission of strengthening Native American communities and economies.

First Nations Moves into New Office Building

First Nations Development Institute has a new address!

First Nations purchased its own headquarters office building in Longmont, Colorado, and moved in on April 26, 2013.  The purchase was a strategic move that makes great economic sense both for the organization and for the Native communities it serves.  According to First Nations Board Chair B. Thomas Vigil, “It became obvious that First Nations needed to seize control of its own physical space. The building is now a key asset of the organization, providing operational space as well as rental income from other tenants.”

Michael E. Roberts, First Nations’ president, commented that “First Nations will no longer be dealing with wildly escalating rental rates, and will be allowed to keep the concentration of its resources on serving Indian Country and not paying rent.” The move was precipitated by a 67% rent increase demanded for the same space that First Nations and its independent subsidiary, First Nations Oweesta Corporation, had occupied for more than two and a half years.

First Nations’ board approved the borrowing of funds from First Nations’ endowment fund to purchase the building. Going forward, First Nations will be paying back the loan to its own endowment with interest, will buffer itself from future rent increases, has available space for expansion, may be eligible for nonprofit property tax offsets, and will earn income from other building renters.  Currently, some of the other tenants include insurance and real estate agencies, a senior citizen care firm, plus two other American Indian organizations.

The two-story building was constructed in the 1980s. First Nations negotiated a below-market price for the property along with concessions for some necessary updates and repairs.

According to Michael, the purchase of the building is a sign of the continuing growth and maturity of the organization. “Besides the major economic advantages of owning our own property, it is a bricks-and-mortar symbol of the permanence of our mission of strengthening Native American communities across the United States.”

Our phone numbers and email address all remain the same, but here’s our new street address:

First Nations Development Institute
2432 Main Street, 2nd Floor
Longmont, CO 80501