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Native Americans in Philanthropy: Innovation and Inspiration

When you bring more than 200 Natives and their allies together to exchange information and ideas on what’s going on in Indian Country it’s bound to be a gathering that is full of wisdom and good-humored teasing, Indian style!

That’s how the Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP) celebrated their 25th anniversary at Mystic Lake Hotel in Minnesota recently. Tribal and community leaders, Native and non-Native philanthropic and nonprofit professionals, spent three days sharing best practices and networking on how to support healthy Native communities through philanthropy.

Although conditions in Indian Country are difficult on many fronts, we, as a community are innovating ways to meet the needs of our communities while at the same time tackling root causes.

The life experience of the keynote speaker, Dr. Kathy Annette, executive director of the Blandin Foundation and member of the White Earth Nation, captures the story of Indian Country today. She is the only graduate of the Red Lake Reservation school system to become a physician.

Dr. Annette, in her moving keynote, spoke of how we are compelled to navigate systems that are not aware of our community’s traditions or even existence.

“Natives and People of Color are underrepresented in philanthropy. Natives need to be at the table,” she said.

An array of workshops covered topics from how to engage effectively with foundations, to Native models of assessment in meeting grant requirements to dispelling myths about urban Indians.

In the workshop, Making the Invisible Visible – Urban Indian America, Janeen Comenote, of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, talked about the lack of clear data on urban Indian communities and little academic research. Under President Ronald Reagan, she discovered, funding ended for urban Indian centers which were established earlier by the Federal government, just as Indians were becoming more concentrated in cities.

“Our community knows what it needs to thrive,” said Comenote. “We need a federal urban Indian policy.” She spoke of the need for Natives and policymakers at every level of government to create forums for civic engagement, consultation, and vetting initiatives in order to bridge the divide between tribal and urban Indian populations.

The NAP conference helped me understand the importance of meaningful and culturally appropriate relationships between foundations and Indian County – and the growing impact of tribal philanthropy.

Funding needs to target locally based projects that address the disparities and barriers we experience in every area of life, economic, social and political. Foundations need to take into account that Indian Country needs an infrastructure of tribal and service providers and grassroots organizers who advocate for basic federal policy shifts to close the disparities.

The organizing needed must be premised on the power of our traditions through combining the telling the stories of our community, assessing the real conditions and using community awareness to guide the policy changes.

The solutions to the problems Native communities, urban, rural or reservation are in our communities, we need the resources to generate the civic engagement that will make it possible.

Judith LeBlanc is the National Coordinator for the Native Organizers Alliance and Senior Organizer at the Alliance for a Just Society.