“Disrupting the Legacy of Colonialism.” An Oregon Funder Partners With Tribes on the Environment



We hear the word equity in the philanthrosphere often these days, at both the local and national levels. In the Pacific Northwest, an area steeped in indigenous history, it’s hard to imagine a local foundation developing a comprehensive equity strategy without working with Native American communities.

The Meyer Memorial Trust in Portland adopted equity as its guiding star in 2016, and it recently partnered with local tribes to integrate and honor Native wisdom within its environmental grantmaking. While it has backed Native American-related causes in the past, the round of grants in late 2018 was marked by a purposeful drive to “integrate traditional knowledge into conservation practices.”

Where Indigenous, Social Justice and Environmental Giving Converge

As we’ve covered at Inside Philanthropy, while highly-publicized events like Standing Rock can trigger bursts of focused grantmaking, funding to Native American causes is very low overall. A 2011 report found that just 0.3 percent of total foundation giving went to this area. A 2018 report looking at community foundations in 10 key states found an average of 0.15 percent was directed for these purposes. Despite the high levels of poverty and other social, health and environmental struggles Native Americans face, the disconnect between traditional philanthropy and these communities persists—making Meyer’s newest grants a welcome standout.

“[We] are excited to learn more about how traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous communities and Western science can work together to support healthy natural systems and communities,” portfolio director Jill Fuglister wrote in a blog at the end of 2018. She tells IP this integration “opens the door to addressing the disparate impacts of environmental problems that indigenous communities experience by creating space for indigenous leaders to bring their concerns, priorities and solutions to environmental protection efforts.”

By turning to local Native American communities to help steer its environmental grantmaking practices, Meyer may create a rich example of how environmental and social movements can come together. We see more, but arguably not enough, environmental, social justice and human rights-focused groups acknowledging and exploring how their causes overlap. At the crux of this intersection is the fact that minority groups are often the most affected by environmental degradation and calamity, and the recognition that these same communities can be a source of experience-based, authentic responses to these problems.

Fuglister also says the funds seek to “disrupt” the legacy of colonization—a stance that brings to mind Edgar Villanueva’s recent call to decolonize wealth and philanthropy. One notable and rather literal example of this effort on Meyer’s part is a grant that helps a tribal community purchase their traditional lands, in an attempt to rectify an unratified treaty from the mid-1800s.

How the Trust Partners With Tribes and Local Communities to Protect the Environment

In late 2018, Meyer approved $24 million in grants to organizations in Oregon working to remove barriers to equity through its annual funding opportunity and its four portfolios dedicated to Building Community, Equitable Education, Housing Opportunities and a Healthy Environment. The environment portfolio awarded $5.32 million through 55 grants, with many aiming to benefit tribe-run or -related endeavors.

One of the largest of awards, for close to $250,000, will support a collaborative effort of five tribal communities to address pollution in the Portland Harbor, a ten-mile stretch of the lower Willamette River that was designated an EPA Superfund site in 2000. This program will focus on watershed and habitat restoration and piggybacks on the trust-backed Willamette River Initiative, a 10-year funding commitment to promoting a healthier river system.

Other funded projects that will reach and partner with Native communities include land conservation “that integrates the Tribes' cultural and healthy traditions goals,” air quality improvement efforts related to prescribed burning for wildfire management, and the integration of Tribal knowledge into Wallowa Lake management. Wisdom of the Elders, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve and share traditional cultural knowledge, also received a grant to train Native American adults about Native plant nursery work, with a goal to help them develop agricultural careers or micro-enterprises using these new skills.

And a particularly interesting grant of $50,000 goes to the Confederated Lower Chinook Tribes and Bands to “purchase, protect and revitalize” their “historically important Tansy Point treaty-grounds” in Warrenton, Oregon. These controversial treaties of the 1850s with the U.S. government were supposed to enable local tribes to remain on portions of their traditional lands, among other agreements, but were never ratified. Long legal battles persist regarding the land and federal recognition for the modern Chinook Indian Nation, which spans Oregon and Washington. According to a GoFundMe the Chinook Tribal Council created to raise money for a portion of the land, the “undeveloped acreage is being offered exclusively to the Tribe, at a rate significantly below market value, by the family who has been its caretakers for the better part of a century.” The Tribes’ goal is “interpreting the historical significance of the site, protecting it from development and revitalizing the Tansy Creek watershed.”

Property-rights and -usage are not new issues in environmental debates, but they take on a special meaning in relation to Native American history. And Meyer adopts a somewhat unique grantmaking role here by recognizing and supporting a Tribal community’s land-inheritance where the government has failed to do so.

Meyer’s other recent environment grants are diverse. They address land and forest conservation, climate change and climate justice, clean air, watershed health and green workforce development. Meyer’s equity focus permeates the list. One grantee who received a large amount was Verde—it was granted close to $250,000 for a project focusing on environmental, housing, health and economic disparities in Portland's Cully neighborhood, along with $150,000 for operating support. Organizing People Activating Leaders (OPAL) was given $210,000 to organize low-income communities and people of color impacted by environmental health hazards and “advance a statewide, community-led environmental and climate-justice platform.” Another grant for $165,000 to the Bonneville Environmental Foundation will fund a program that brings solar projects to low-income residents.

“[We] focus on the environment on two levels, by prioritizing efforts that protect and improve the health of the environment and by addressing the underlying disparities affecting specific populations and communities,” Meyer states.

In devoting a significant amount of funding to collaborating with indigenous communities and honoring Native wisdom, the Meyer Memorial Trust demonstrates how to interweave funding for environmental and social progress at a local level. Fuglister tells us this strategy aligns with Meyer’s “commitment to inclusion and equity, because it sets a table that allows for multiple ways of approaching stewardship.”