When Eagles Hatch: Native Americans in Philanthropy and Native Youth Activism

A protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. arindambanerjee/shutterstock

A protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. arindambanerjee/shutterstock

The history of Native American mistreatment in the U.S. is a deep and largely unhealed wound—one that philanthropy has mostly side-stepped. Native Americans, a diverse cohort of about 5.4 million, make up almost 2 percent of the U.S. population, but philanthropic support for their communities and causes remains low—the focus of less than 0.5 percent of annual foundation grant dollars.

Sarah Eagle Heart, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP), tells Inside Philanthropy that, over time, “The government’s behavior gave cues to philanthropy, and the result was and is a severely under-resourced and vulnerable Native population.” She mentions hundreds of violated treaties, the erasure of culture existence and the physical erasure of Native populations as some of the factors that can influence “how non-Natives consider funding priorities.”

NAP is busy doing all it can to bring more and better-informed philanthropic support and services to Native people. It is a network of Native and non-Native nonprofits, tribal communities, foundations and community leaders who are “committed to engaging, learning and sharing resources and best practices grounded in Native values and traditions.” NAP formed in 1989 and has offices in Minneapolis and L.A. This membership-based affinity organization has three primary goals: to increase philanthropic investment in Native communities; bolster support for Native, philanthropic and nonprofit leaders and increase sector diversity; make reliable data and Indigenous-led research on giving to Native communities more regularly available. “Restoring Native communities to full health and sustainability” is a guiding aspiration, and a current focus is Native youth activism.

The Ford Foundation recently gave NAP’s youth programming a boost with a $450,000 grant toward its Generation Indigenous (#GenIndigenous or Gen-I) Response Fund. Eagle Heart says, “We work with dozens of foundations, but are close partners with the Ford Foundation, Kellogg Foundation and California Endowment.”

Along with the other philanthropies we’ll mention herein, a few of the funders we’ve seen back Native American organizations and issues are the Christensen Fund, Borealis Philanthropy, Alaska Community Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, True North Foundation, and the Native Cultures Fund, which is a partnership between Native Nations, the Humboldt Area Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and others.

“[We] believe that institutional philanthropy, including Ford, must do more to support Native-led philanthropy and Native American social justice infrastructure,” Ford Senior Program Officer of Civic Engagement and Government Luna Yasui tells us.

Helping Indigenous Youth Soar and Succeed

The intergenerational and contemporary effects of the injustices Native people have faced are visible in the struggles of Native youth, who experience unusually high rates of suicide, addiction and other health issues, expulsion, family separation, and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, among other traumas. NAP points out that Native communities are “very young”—people under 24 make up about 42 percent of the population, as opposed to 34 percent of the total U.S. One of the main ways NAP backs Native youth is through its Gen-I programming. This includes the #GenIndigenous Fund, a pledge, a supportive network, a series of events for youth, research projects, diverse funder education initiatives, and intergenerational visioning sessions.

The #GenIndigenous fund is a pooled fund housed at the Minneapolis Foundation that supports Native youth organizing through Native-led nonprofits. NAP notes that this fund builds on the impact of its Native Voice Rising fund for advocacy and justice, on which it partners with the Common Counsel Foundation. The #GenIndigenous fund has awarded nearly $250,000 to organizations throughout the U.S. since 2016, and it tripled the number of grants it awarded in 2018. In early 2019, it awarded $155,000 to 19 Native youth-serving organizations.

“It is critical to engage and support Native Youth in activism because, every day, they demonstrate the ability to thrive and persevere despite historical, structural and institutional inequities,” says Edgar Villanueva, vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation. He is the chair of NAP’s board and is donating the net proceeds of his book, Decolonizing Wealth, to the #GenIndigenous Fund.

“Guided by shared values such as reciprocity and humility, leaders keep the circle strong so that more eaglets hatch from the nest, soaring into their personal sovereignty. Lifted by all those wings, the tribal nation enjoys its own sovereignty and self-determination,” a Gen-I report states.

Ford has supported NAP with $700,000 since 2011, while also backing other Native groups and causes. Yasui tells us the foundation is supporting Native youth at this time because it believes young people closest “to the challenges of inequality are often best situated to catalyze movements and bring unique approaches” to challenges that may seem “intractable.” She mentions Dreamers working on immigration reform, high school students addressing gun violence and Native American youth working to counter climate change and protect natural resources at Standing Rock as “transformational” examples of youth power.

Young people have also exhibited their collective influence in movements around voter mobilization and rights, #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. Other funders who support youth advocacy initiatives include FRIDA the Young Feminist Fund, the California Wellness Foundation, Third Wave Fund, and members of the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing (FCYO) like the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, Open Society Foundations and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Meanwhile, Resource Generation, the Surdna Foundation, Andrus Family Fund, New York Women’s Foundation, McKnight Foundation and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, among others, encourage and support young philanthropists.

The Gen-I initiatives were launched at the 2014 White House Tribal Nations Conference with the support of President Barack Obama, who had visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota with Michelle Obama to hear the stories of Native youth. Gen-I’s programming centers on a call to Native youth to pledge to make a positive difference in their communities. NAP partner Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) coordinates a Gen-I Native Youth Network—a platform used to connect, engage and provide opportunities for Gen-I young people. CNAY also identifies young Native leaders each year who are “champions for change.” For example, champions for change, 2017 Gen-I Response Fund grantees and brothers Dakhota and Dahlton Brown founded Native Education Raising Dedicated Students (NERDS), which works to reduce the Native high school dropout rate through peer-run programs, mentoring and cultural gatherings.

NAP is also in the midst of carrying out a multi-phase research agenda to guide youth funding strategies, relying on an indigenous scholar circle and other sources of academic and community insight. Drawing on long-held Native beliefs and traditions, or “Original Instructions,” NAP has already identified seven “protective factors” for the “optimal development of Native youth, families and communities,” recognizing that youth do not grow or live in a bubble—an appreciation for interconnectedness that echoes throughout NAP’s literature. The protective factors for youth are “cultural connection and connectedness, family connectedness, community control, spirituality and ceremonies, extended kin bonds and networks, healthy traditional food, and youth self-efficacy” and they can be seen woven throughout the grantees’ programming.

The Gen-I grantees connect with and empower Native young people in a variety of areas like traditional knowledge, ceremonies, games and language; political organizing and advocacy; media and communications; mentoring and education; workforce development; health and healing; leadership; creative expression; indigenous food systems and sustainability; and juvenile, environmental, racial and social justice. One 2019 recipient works to recover and reinvigorate traditional games, while another enables youth to engage with sacred indigenous saved seeds in order to create Native, decolonized food systems.

According to NAP, the youth, service providers and funders who make up #GenIndigenous are following the call of Chief Sitting Bull, whose gravesite overlooks the Missouri River—the only water supply for the Standing Rock Reservation. Chief Sitting Bull said, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

Native Americans in Philanthropy’s Other Endeavors and Future Plans

Along with its Gen-I initiatives, two of NAP’s other campaigns are Indigenous Women and Girls and Native Voices Rising, which supports organizing, advocacy and civic engagement in American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities. NAP publishes related briefs and runs webinars, trainings, convenings and conferences, including those it co-hosts with CNAY and United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc. (UNITY), and its annual National Philanthropy Institute.

NAP sometimes educates funders directly through tours of Native communities and the Gen-I movement. In 2016, funders toured the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance, and in 2017, NAP teamed up with the California Endowment to take funders to Native communities in Northern California to learn about local cultures and needs. The tours included immersive experiences like performances of traditional Lakota songs by children and boat journeys to learn about the Klamath River’s ecological and cultural significance. These approaches have been effective—NAP reports they “fostered increased understanding and connection between funders and tribes that resulted in a number of positive outcomes,” including more than $1.25 million in awards and grants by the Wallace Global Fund to the Standing Rock Tribe.

NAP states that the current socio-political environment has “heightened divisions, fostered uncertainty and shifted funds and focus away from addressing our communities’ challenges.” While Eagle Heart emphasizes that the “lack of respect for, attention to and diversion of funds from Native people and the issues that impact them” is nothing new, she also says, “We do need to be very concerned about the racist commentary of the current administration, because it does influence how people think about the consideration and care that should be extended to Native Americans.”

As we’ve reported at IP, one way NAP seeks to foster public and philanthropic awareness of funding purposes and avenues in relation to Native causes is through a new web platform that Eagle Heart says will “provide in-depth historical education, cultural context and funding snapshots.” NAP partners with Candid—formerly the Foundation Center—on this portal, which will be live this fall. Some of the backers of this initiative are the Bush, Henry Luce and Northwest Area foundations.

And another current initiative that will extend over the next few years is NAP’s Truth and Healing Movement, which centers on an educational group activity called “The Blanket Exercise.” NAP says it’s a “unique, participatory history lesson” that was developed in collaboration with indigenous elders, knowledge keepers and educators. The exercise is intended to foster “truth, understanding, respect and reconciliation among indigenous and nonindigenous peoples.” It involves the use of fabric, group movement, readings, reflection and more. (Watch a portion of a Blanket Exercise here.)

The Truth and Healing Movement will also involve NAP leading regional gatherings, healing circles, racial healing dinners and cultural learning tours. NAP created a pledge inviting allies to support tribal populations by committing to ongoing education and “both individual and collective actions.” Organizations that sign the pledge agree to host the Blanket Exercise, participate in follow-up and documentation, learn about American history related to Native American peoples, practice ally-building and more. NAP’s partners in the Truth and Healing programs are the Women’s Funding Network, American Indian Alaska Native, The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, the Gathering for Justice, Hispanics in Philanthropy and We Stand United.

NAP refers to Native Americans and other indigenous peoples as “the original philanthropists”—a message we also encountered in Decolonizing Wealth. Eagle Heart tells us more about this concept:

“Indigenous worldview is centered around the idea that we are all connected—the sun, the moon, the earth, and the plants and animals that reside here. This fosters a deep sense of community and duty of care for all members within a group… This would often include neighboring tribes or villages, and even the welcoming care of strangers, including the early Europeans that arrived on the continent… We believe this is what modern-day philanthropy should be about, but the reality is that much work needs to happen throughout the sector in terms of equity.”