Over the past two years, the media has attempted to document how the COVID-19 pandemic exposed long-standing, systemic inequalities as the virus disproportionately impacted historically marginalized Indigenous populations. However, there’s another important story in Indian Country that has been simultaneously unfolding, one deserving of increased attention from the greater philanthropic community that they should factor into future grant-making efforts.
Native women who are leading New Mexico-based foundations, community nonprofits, and organizations came together—across kitchen tables, on conference calls, in virtual meetings, and via email communications—to identify the greatest areas of need in their state and local communities. These women mobilized their collective resources and expertise, as well as eliminated extraneous paperwork and cumbersome reporting requirements, to deliver targeted aid to Native communities as quickly as possible.
JoAnn Melchor is the President and CEO of the New Mexico Foundation.
In April 2020, Melchor helped launch the Native American Relief Fund (NARF), collaborating with local and national funding partners, nonprofits, and government entities, to help deliver resources to Navajo and Apache Nations and the Pueblos of New Mexico.
To date, NARF has allocated more than 90 grants and raised over $2 million of its $3 million goal.
“[The support from] so many people locally and nationally who wanted to help with COVID relief, water, PPE, and basic supplies was amazing,” Melchor said.
How to best distribute aid was a decision that Melchor and the other members of NARF’s advisory committee (all but one of whom are Native women) had to figure out immediately. They reached out to all the local tribes to assess each community’s most urgent needs and determined that an equal amount of direct cash assistance would be the fund’s first round of support.
The advisory committee also streamlined the application process down to a two-page form. “Connection and trust with local tribal communities was so much easier to establish given that all members of the advisory committee are Native people,” Melchor said.
“To make these funding decisions requires Native people to know and understand [the community] … Little by little, we are seeing that shift,” she added. “More funders are listening, making their application process simpler. They are connecting and reaching out to more tribes and nonprofits that work with tribes.”
Melchor, a member of Santo Domingo Pueblo, said that Native women in leadership positions across New Mexico bring their values of creating community, respect, love, and culture to their work.
“The language we use is critical as we do our work to distribute funding in a way that’s respectful to everyone,” she explained. “Trust-based philanthropy is really critical to our Native tribes. In the past, non-Native funders were coming in and saying, ‘This is what you need, this is what we are giving you.’”
Not surprisingly, that approach “never worked,” Melchor said. “We can do better [by] asking communities, ‘How can we be in partnership with you?’” The simple shift of asking local communities what they need is the best way for philanthropic organizations to start working with tribal communities.
Dr. Amanda J. Montoya is the Executive Director of the Chamiza Foundation, a private family foundation that’s been dedicated to preserving the culture and traditions of the Pueblo people of New Mexico for more than 30 years. She describes a March 2020 emergency meeting of her board members on how to best help local Pueblos.
“Everyone was scrambling for water, food, PPE,” Montoya said. “Masks, hand sanitizer, supplies … all were disappearing. The board decided to send out emergency money to all the Pueblos– equal amounts of money to each of them.”
When the pandemic forced Pueblos to lock down their communities and restrict access to and from their tribal lands, the lack of critical infrastructure such as reliable, affordable broadband internet access exacerbated an already fraught time.
“Think about the people who didn’t have internet in their houses at all or what they had was unreliable,” Montoya explained. “Think about having three kids at home, all needing to be online for school and to do their homework, and not having enough bandwidth … maybe their parents were working from home too … Getting broadband into these tribal communities became an even greater imperative than it had before.”
In addition to serving on NARF’s advisory committee and leading her own foundation, Montoya was one of the local leaders in her state who helped create the New Mexico Broadband Collective, which consists of funders and nonprofit organizations committed to ensuring internet access in hard to connect communities.
To be a Pueblo woman leading efforts such as these is a “big thing for us … in our tribal communities,” Montoya explained. “Our local communities are all led by tribal councils, who are all men, but the kind of work that I do at these foundations is all led by females.”
“So many Native women are out there doing phenomenal work. We’re out here making these decisions, these bigger moves, locating and directing resources for our communities. We walk in two worlds: Our traditional way of life and the non-Native world.”
Montoya appreciates the recognition her efforts have received in the non-Native world. However, what means the most to her is being recognized by her own Pueblo leadership.
“In my own community, I was a community development director,” she said. “Even before the pandemic, a lot of females were serving in program director roles, the people who oversee all programs and work directly with tribal leadership.”
Montoya said strong, educated, female tribal members in these positions “are doing nuts and bolts research, background work to get answers, informing the tribal leadership behind the scenes.”
The additional work done during the pandemic by these women was a heavy lift, she added. “The strength we found in working with each other, to get resources to our communities, it also helped us individually. We could be there for each other, provide an outlet, even if we just saw each other virtually… just to talk. It was a very lonely time during the pandemic.”
Looking back over the past two years, Joannie Romero chooses to “celebrate resilience.”
Romero, a member of the Pueblo of Cochiti and Executive Director of the Laguna Community Foundation, explained what it’s like to be in the philanthropic space, integrating her cultural lens into the work she does “in a system that wasn’t built for us … a system that was built upon our stolen land.” She asserts that Native people are reclaiming systems, shifting the conversation, rewriting the narrative, and re-centering Indigenous women.
Romero, another member of NARF’s advisory committee, said she’s new to the field of philanthropy and the youngest woman of the group, so she waits to speak.
“It’s beautiful to see the unfolding, the re-centering of women’s voices,” Romero explained. “I acknowledge that all these leaders have [an] amazing wealth of knowledge … I want to learn from them.”
A key role for Romero during the pandemic was to oversee relief fund communication efforts, reach out to the media, collaborate with larger foundations, and notify tribal communities in the state about the fund’s existence.
When Romero met with prospective funders, one of the top questions she received was, “How come [the pandemic’s] so bad? Why are the numbers so high in Indian Country?”
Conversations such as these allowed Romero to draw on her master’s degree in Indian law and share historical inequities in federal Indian law policy, which continue to impact Native tribes negatively.
“So many of our people lack access to basic resources,” Romero said. “We don’t live in food deserts; we experience food apartheid. Driving sixty miles to get to the nearest grocery store, one that doesn’t have the best quality food either. Our people cannot ‘just run’ to the Whole Foods for a healthy concoction should they get sick,” she explained.
“My generation is trying to save culture, to revive our language, revive the ways of our elders … to see whole communities devastated in such a short amount of time and not be able to properly grieve, conduct our ceremonies because of protocols around preventing further spread of the virus … it was heartbreaking,” Romero shared. “But that’s where we as Native women … as leaders … as matriarchs in our communities … we were ready … it was in our blood memory. We’ve done this before.”
Native women, Romero explained, “were the first ones to come up with a plan … with a solution.”
“As Indigenous women leaders, we had to be very strategic, ask ourselves: ‘How can we support our communities, work with the larger philanthropic community [while also] acknowledging how state/federal government works, how philanthropy works?”
When NARF conducted its first deployment of support to local tribes and nations, Romero asked to have the honor of presenting the check to her tribal leadership.
“To be able to participate in that ceremony and give back to my own community… It’s what we pray and dance for in our ceremonies,” she said.
Romero hopes that the greater philanthropic community and other nonprofit organizations take measurable steps and move in a more strategic direction when working with Indigenous peoples.
“We can no longer accept pieces of funding that are short-term, unrealistic deliverables that require us to do what traditional philanthropy forces us to do. We cannot be in that realm any longer. It hasn’t gotten us anywhere.”
“Philanthropy has been so focused on one-year grants. Where is the funding for general operations?” Romero asked. “Not just funding a particular program that needs to be built. We’re out here competing against each other; we already have trauma from scarcity mentality.”
The philanthropy community must take measurable steps toward actionable change, Romero urged. “Create opportunities where Indigenous peoples are not fighting over funding, pitting one community up against another community or forcing us to bend over backwards to do a million things for short-term funding… I feel like we made a lot of headway, but it all comes back to relationship building and potential funders being willing to listen.”
“Non-Native people are starting to see the power of matriarchy as the caretakers of our communities, ourselves, and our children,” said Vanessa Roanhorse, CEO of Roanhorse Consulting, LLC, and co-founder of Native Women Lead (NWL). NWL was one of four final awardees to receive a $10-million award in the 2021 Equality Can’t Wait Challenge.
“NWL collaborated with New Mexico Community Capital for the winning proposal which will invest in and help scale high-performing Native-owned businesses to unlock potential for wealth creation, power, and influence,” according to a statement from Roanhorse.
“Indigenous women in New Mexico have been at the helm of so much; they’ve just been overlooked and unseen, their labor ignored, but they have been here creating this infrastructure for hundreds of years. We are just building off of all that work, we want to accelerate it and see a continuation of the matriarchy going on for the next one thousand years,” Roanhorse said.
When co-founding NWL, she said an important message to other women was, “let’s stop trying to be seen and just invest in ourselves. The shift in energy toward ‘I see you because I see myself,’ ignited Indigenous women in our state in a way that said, ‘I don’t need approval.’”
“When you stop asking for permission … when you just start seeing women do it … we didn’t have a lot of detractors. If anything, people started asking, ‘Why haven’t we had indigenous women in positions of power? Why haven’t we invested in Native women?’ That’s the shift, that’s the tipping point.”
“Who shows up when things are tough while cooking, feeding, minding elders? It’s women, time and time again, sitting around the table and figuring it out”, she added. “Never underestimate [the] power of women with a cause and a kitchen table, one of the most generative places.”
Roanhorse encouraged funders to come to New Mexico and look closer at the work of Native women across the state and witness what you’re not going to see anywhere else.
“Come to a place in which you’re going to hear Native people speaking in their Native languages at governmental ceremonies… observe highly sophisticated and mobilized organizations doing a different kind of entrepreneurship, economic development, and investment-making. There are more resources being developed now in New Mexico that are Native-led, designed by Native people, serving Native people in an interconnected ecosystem. There is much potential and so much grounded wisdom in this state,” she added. “Our job is to get out of our own way… not be afraid… That’s why it’s so powerful to have Native women leading foundations and institutions.”
Natasha Hale, a program officer for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, urged the philanthropy community to stop being “risk adverse” to funding Native-led projects just because they don’t understand the unique relationships between state, tribal governments, and community-based organizations.
Over the next few years, the Kellogg Foundation is investing $3 million to help the New Mexico Community Foundation create a loan fund for BIPOC businesses and offer culturally competent technical assistance and programming to both existing and budding BIPOC business owners.
Hale, who was raised on the Navajo reservation in Twin Lakes, New Mexico, said that she’s often served as a “cultural broker for folks who don’t understand the work, who the leaders are.”
She urged grantmakers to forge trust-based relationships with Native-led, community-based groups and build on the work underway there—and stop giving Native-led groups and communities “just enough [funding] to fail.”
Hale feels the level of funding should rise to meet the complication of the problem.
“There is a lot of work to be done. Civic engagement will continue to be important in this work,” she explained. “Native people are in positions of leadership across the entire state. They understand the issues and what’s at stake.”