I write to you today from Mni-Sota Makoce — the homeland of the Dakota and Anishinaabe people. I acknowledge the ancestors, past, present, and emerging, of all the land we work and live on and their Ancestral Spirits with gratitude and respect.
How often have you attended a conference, a meeting, or listened to a speech lately that started with land acknowledgement? I’d bet it is growing and that is heartening. This acknowledgement is a key step to understanding the long history that has brought you to live on the land and the people to whom the land belongs. Yet, if you have moved on from acknowledgments unchanged in your actions, I challenge you to now go deeper in ways that lead to greater investments in Native communities. If philanthropy is truly about seeing the world as it could be, then we cannot sit complacent in the face of underinvestment in Indigenous communities!
At the Bush Foundation, we invest in Native Americans and the 23 Native nations across our region. This longstanding commitment is core to our mission. How and what we support changes over time as we continue to learn from and with our grantees, partners, and Native communities. We have listened deeply for decades, remaining committed and taking direction from Native folks. This doesn’t mean we have invested enough or are doing it perfectly. This investment comes in many forms — seeding the Native nations Rebuilders program to honor tribal sovereignty, supporting the Native Governance Center to carry so much important work forward. Investing in the leadership of individuals, in service of community, through the Bush Fellowship program. Supporting efforts to bring Buffalo back to tribal lands, as well as language revitalization efforts and more through the Community Innovation program. We are also contributing to COVID vaccination efforts, investing in funds to support Native businesses, ensuring Native voices are part of selection decisions, and granting $50 million in a reparative spirit to a Native organization to support generational wealth building in the Native community. Not an exhaustive list, but examples.
As a non-Native person, I write this with deep humility. I do not speak for Native people. You can and should listen directly to groups like Native Americans in Philanthropy. My hope is that you hear in this reflection that you do not have to be Native to see the strength and wisdom in Native communities. You do not need to wait any longer to move your organization toward investing in Indigenous people and efforts. It is unacceptable to leave the burden of convincing philanthropy to see and value investments in Native communities to those who are Native. Each of us, no matter our heritage, can help to solidify much needed philanthropic support.
According to CEP’s recent report, Overlooked (Part Two): Foundation Funding for Native American Leaders and Communities, “almost two thirds of foundation leaders say that they provide little or no grant dollars to organizations primarily serving Native American communities. Another quarter are not sure what percentage of their grant dollars are currently allocated to organizations primarily serving these communities.” That’s not someone else CEP is talking about. That is us. Philanthropy. By this time, you likely know these statistics. And you know that we can and must do better. The question is, what will it take for you to invest with and in Native communities differently and in much bigger ways? Your mission may be issues based, your region may be small or large, but wherever you are, I’m betting that to serve your community you MUST invest in Native people and organizations. Perhaps you’ve been slow to start — there is no better time than now.
What do you know about the history of Indigenous people in your community? What do you think you know? How are you nurturing the entrepreneurial energy and supporting the needs of the community? What percentage of your funding goes to Native-led organizations? What assumptions or biases do you hold that may have an impact on the way you think about investing in these communities?
In the CEP report, Native nonprofit leaders shared what they would like to see, saying, “There’s so much marginalization of Indigenous people and disinformation. Those are the two biggest problems. Most Americans that I talk to don’t know about the history of Indigenous people, don’t understand what’s happened, don’t understand our lives.” What I have learned from Native colleagues, friends and community members is that deep listening is the key. You may think this is obvious. I ask you to consider your definition of listening and then go further to the most expansive possible meaning. Listening to what’s said and unsaid. To body language and humor. To the generational stories that are echoing in the one you may be hearing today. To the reality that this is not, and cannot, be a one-time conversation. This is about showing up, coming back together, and finding one another when we have things to celebrate and when there are tough things to sort through.
You already know that relationships and trust are key to great philanthropy. What I invite you to think about is the kind of learning and reflection you want to do to prepare for the conversations leaders are asking for and investments the communities need. Can you talk with someone you know and trust in the community? Can you do some reading about the history and context of Native Americans in your community? Yes, you can! I invite you to imagine all that is possible when our communities have what we need to thrive.
My thoughtful colleague, Eileen Briggs, shared that she believes philanthropy is overcoming its fear of Indian country. Fear of an abyss of issues that need addressing. Philanthropy is moving to a place of investing out of respect, of believing in and supporting Native self-determination. That is my hope as well. We can work together, across communities, to make these investments. Not because we will do it perfectly, but because we can share in the abundance of a definition of philanthropy that includes recognizing our history, imagining our potential, and stepping forward to make those dreams a reality. The next time CEP asks about philanthropic investments in Native communities, let’s respond with abundance and depth.