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The First Philanthropists: A Reflection for National Philanthropy Day

November 10, 2021 | 2 min read

The First Philanthropists: A Reflection for National Philanthropy Day

Today, we find ourselves at the intersection of Native American Heritage Month and National Philanthropy Day. Indigenous peoples of this land are the first philanthropists. Our ancestors’ generosity is what made survival possible for the many waves of colonial settlers who came to this land.   

Unfortunately, our generosity was met with greed. The world we know today is built upon the extraction and disposition of Indigenous land, water, food, and peoples as well as the enslavement and exploitation of black and brown bodies. 

The historical trauma inflicted by colonization, genocide, and centuries of systemic oppression is now more widely recognized. Some traumatic events, such as Indigenous land dispossession for the exploitation of natural resources, continue even to this day. It is not enough to address the symptoms of oppression. Philanthropy must understand their root causes and acknowledge the ways in which it has benefited from and contributed to these events. Today, we acknowledge that philanthropy needs its own truth and healing movement. 

Our current story as Indigenous people, and as the original philanthropists, is one of resilience and opportunity as told by the powerful Native-led work of community building, increasing power and leadership, and preserving our unique cultures.  

We often hear how ‘Indigenous existence is resistance’, but Indigenous existence is also inherently philanthropic. Our Indigenous values of generosity, respect, responsibility, partnership, and reciprocity hold true to this day and are what inspire our continued philanthropic works as Native people. 

As the first philanthropists, American Indians and Alaskan Natives view giving and reciprocity as moral responsibilities to support and sustain communities and ultimately maintain sovereignty among Tribal nations and Indigenous peoples. We are grateful to have a national platform to engage mainstream philanthropic funders with shared interests and to build relationships between funders and Native communities that transcend the current moment to change the landscape for good. 

There is no undoing of many of the traumas our communities have experienced, but we can come together to understand, address, and take the journey of healing together. Philanthropy has a significant role to play: 

  • First, as thoughtful citizens who are willing to learn about and reckon with painful histories.  
  • Second, as strategic change makers who recognize the connection between historical trauma and today’s funding priorities.  
  • And third, as allies with resources who can generate meaningful action that restores power to Native communities. 

As we are starting to come to terms with our collective responsibility, the world is looking to Indigenous leaders for solutions across sectors—from environmental conservation to innovative entrepreneurship to cultural preservation. Even the field of philanthropy, which is grappling with issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, looks to Indigenous wisdom for ways to better integrate these values into practice.  

Today, National Philanthropy Day, we honor the Indigenous values and knowledge that has inspired the philanthropic spirit since  time immemorial and continues to guide Native-led and Native-serving organizations.


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