It has been nine months since I was hired as the CEO of NAP and it feels like I have been supporting the birth of a new era for Native Americans in Philanthropy. It has been an amazing time and I look forward to a promising future in the months and years to come.
As most philanthropists will say, “They didn’t plan on working in philanthropy” and that is the same case for me. I was raised in a small rural tribal community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota by my unci (grandmother) and tiwahe (extended family). My grandmother was a Headstart teacher and cook. She raised my twin sister and I when our mother was unable to. I was raised in a difficult and severely poverty stricken area; however, the Lakota values of generosity, wisdom, fortitude and courage have influenced my life and leadership in unimaginable ways. Lakota people are raised to struggle and “help your people”, Despite the social barriers I grew up with, I have helped my and many other people in need throughout my life.
Most recently, working as a Program Officer for Indigenous Ministry for the Episcopal Church, as well as the team leader for Diversity, Social and Environmental Team, I traveled the world. I learned about Indigenous Peoples, their issues and concerns. I also provided resources and advocated within the church, among other denominations, and at the United Nations. It was a true blessing.
When I came to philanthropy, it was by accident and I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. When I tell philanthropists this, they laugh knowingly.
One important early meeting was with Dr. Bob Ross, CEO of The California Endowment. I walked into this meeting, not knowing what to expect. I often tell people it was the most efficient and effective meeting I’ve ever had. Our conversation was deep and reflective, as well as affirmed a calling to tackle the difficult problem. I left this meeting feeling a strong commitment and solidarity from allies, who are willing to take the time to understand our world view and perspective because of our shared similar history of colonialism through slavery and Indian boarding schools.
There are amazing national initiatives currently responding to very critical issues affecting the livelihood of different communities of color throughout the country. However, Native communities continue to be left out. The meaningful and effective participation of Native leaders to assess and address the needs of native communities has been missing. Yet, there are new opportunities for NAP to step in and influence change.
Native people have the tools at hand to make this change. Despite every attempt to eradicate our traditional knowledge, many tribes have succeeded to preserve their culture and world view.
We are at a time in history when the world has come to recognize the value of our traditional knowledge as a gift to greater society. In the good fight for climate change, indigenous peoples knowledge is recognized to hold the key to protect many species and ecosystems around the world, some believe that it is only through the rightful respect and protection of Indigenous Peoples knowledge, in parity with respectful science, that the world can be saved. This traditional knowledge is also a gift that will advance philanthropy. These are the same gifts that have historically encouraged us to help others when they need it. In solidarity with you, the philanthropic community, we can promote and protect the future generations of Native communities.
Many of our tribal communities and non-profit organizations are in a place of need as they overcome the effects of systemic colonization. We know it is important to fund innovative work to end the root cause of issues affecting native communities and not just address the symptoms.
NAP welcomes the Obama administration’s efforts to change those systems through several key initiatives, such as Generation Indigenous and in identifying promise zones on the reservations. Philanthropy has much further to go and institutionalizing respect for Native world view(s) is just a first step in truly understanding why this work must be done together, with a true understanding of the people.
I recently heard two stories that touched me profoundly. A couple of weeks ago, I was home on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. I was invited to learn about the work of the Department of Education and the White House Initiative on American Indian/Alaska Native Education. Locally, through this initiative, they are organized into several circles: the language circle, youth summer work, and counseling. By design, the feds led the first four sessions and schools are leading future convenings. Each session involved a school leader, counselor, teacher, and youth from each of the 17 schools on the reservations selected that serve over 4700 students. I attended the healing/counseling circle and heard the school counselors that serve the reservation schools. They talked about a system that isn’t working.
They shared the story of a student who is acting out and threatens other students. He’s shared photos of ISIS, execution style photos, on his phone and tells friends not to go to school tomorrow, implying there will be a terrorist attack. The teachers and counselors are terrified and angry at the system. He is currently suspended and awaiting a psychiatric evaluation at a hospital that doesn’t currently have a psychiatrist. They spoke of meetings they meant to have, but because of a student suicidal ideation they were cancelled. Another teacher remarked, “Oh yeah, that happened to me yesterday”. Suicide attempts occur every week. Suicide is a daily issue in this community.
Yet, despite the continuous and tiring confrontation with such high risk behaviors, these school leaders found in each other much needed empathy, shared information and resources. They were most excited to learn that one school now has an anti-bullying training. This beginning of conversations came about through the support of this Obama initiative. It is a promising beginning. If these Native educators and leaders continue to gather and discuss the needs of the community, we can get to understanding the root cause of such issues.
The 2nd story I want to share arose as we prepared for this conference. I spoke with Deborah Parker, former tribal council VP of the Tulalip and a prominent advocate on Ending Violence Against Native Women. She shared her experience visiting women’s centers across the United States–how under resourced they are and how some Native leaders give everything they have to help other women.
She remarked that “the native women living in urban cities are at the bottom of barrel [in terms of poverty and oppression] and they are constantly interfacing systematic racism and limited services”. She noted how one Native women’s organization is responding to Violence Against Native Women by creating their own organization not linked to their tribal government. She explained how Native women are obligated to act because of the severity of the problem.
She reminded me of the call by indigenous women at the UN, “Nothing about us without us”, meaning it is necessary for the full participation and consultation of Native women in the design and implementation of all programs and policies on issues that affect their livelihood. The rate of violence that Native women and girls are enduring is of grave concern to the future of Native Communities. Native women are creating their own non-profits outside of government or tribal systems to have more flexibility and creativity to address these issues. NAP is responding to this trend of “Native women empowerment” to ensure their voice and issues is amplified.
Based on my experience and traveling through out the country, most think oppression is limited to rural areas. However, Deborah’s statement moved me profoundly. It’s a reminder that oppression in urban areas can’t be ignored either.
Other shocking statistics note that Native men are also experiencing violence at the same rate as women. Our Native men and boys are also in desperate need of support for our nations to flourish as fully as they did before Columbus–before a western worldview negatively influenced power dynamics on our turtle island. NAP will convene and gather those best practices of non-profits doing this incredible and essential work to share how we can address the root cause of this issue with Native men and boys.
We’ve welcomed new regional network weavers last month. Our wise elder Lucille EchoHawk shared the beginning of NAP, in which all the affinity groups came together to share their cultural grounding of generosity. We are at a time in which CHANGE Philanthropy will return us to our original roots of sharing history and culture in a coalition to advance our individual and collective work. I am grateful for that.
Mitakuyapi, thank you for being a part of our network and engaged in this journey of learning and building relationships grounded in the spirit of generosity.