Native Organizers: Building a Grassroots Movement in Indian Country

Thirty organizers and activists from across Indian Country came together in Seattle in June for a special training opportunity hosted by the Native Organizers Alliance: the annual intensive four-day Native Organizing Training.

Grassroots organizing is both an art and a science. In Indian Country, the art of organizing is reflected in the Native-led action against oil drilling in the Arctic by the ‘Kayaktivists’ in the “Paddle in Seattle”, and the round dance flash mobs of Idle No More.

In four days our aim was to study the science of organizing – Native style, in keeping with our traditions and with our history.

In our jam-packed, daylong sessions, we explored ways to build Native organizers’ skills to meet the unique challenges of organizing in Native communities, on reservations, and in urban and rural centers. We shared lessons, best practices and examined the techniques for building a stronger grassroots movement for social change in Indian Country.

In the end some participants said we needed another day, and most agreed we needed more breaks and time to digest the information. Good advice for next year’s Native Organizing Training!

While exploring the nuts and bolts of outreach, leadership development, strategy and tactics, the participants worked to find the unique, yet critical elements of community engagement that flow from Indian Country’s history and traditions.

After four intensive days together, it is clear that here is so much more to learn about how to deepen our understanding of Native community organizing.

This is just the beginning! The future of Indian Country rests on growing a broad infrastructure of Native organizers and activists who facilitate campaigns that get at the root causes of the lack of jobs, healthy communities and protect treaty rights, sovereignty and Mother Earth from destruction.

The training provided an opportunity to share stories of the tremendous challenges our communities face and our vision and passion for bringing about structural change that will help Native communities not only survive, but also thrive.

The participants were hungry for more opportunity to go deeper into the challenges they face on the ground. Next year’s sessions will need to provide that opportunity in various ways.

Some participants asked that we now consider regional trainings that go beyond Native Organizing 101, to tackle more real life, complicated strategic challenges in Indian Country.

Some suggested segments focused on political empowerment related to advocacy, voter engagement and lobbying. In their written evaluations most said that the most important part of the experience was getting together with others who share a common outlook on movement building in Indian Country.

Especially impressive were the younger participants,coming from cutting edge Indian Country experiences. For instance, one of the activists is a part of the occupation to protect sacred Apache land from uranium mining in Oak Flat, AZ. Another was a Native radio talk show host, and one young man will be headed to the White House for the Native youth gathering in the next week.

One woman representing the “AIM generation” (radicalized in the 1970s) is a traditional Dine organizer. She has been fighting for decades for compensation from the coal and uranium mining companies for the contamination of Navajo land, water and air. She felt uplifted by the energy of the young organizers in the room, who are just beginning the fight for justice in their communities.

One of the most popular sessions of the training was on power mapping. David Bender, the community organizer for the American Indian Center of Chicago, said learning how to map the potential allies and likely opponents in an organizing campaign will help him prepare both his leaders and grassroots members to think and engage more strategically in their work.

At the end of fast-paced week, participants – whether they work in small villages in Alaska, on the Navajo or Hopi Reservations, or in the heart of Chicago, Portland or Billings – went home inspired by the knowledge that they are a part of something bigger. Our hope is that the participants will continue to work together with support from the Native Organizers Alliance to amplify a stronger Native voice on key issues at the national level.

One young participant said, “Nothing is more important for organizers than having a collective with so many common experiences. I see myself working closely with my fellow students and the trainers as we go forward.”

The sheer demand for this training says something powerful about the groundswell of the grassroots upsurge in Indian Country: in a few short weeks, more than 130 people submitted applications for the 30 available slots.

Now the work will continue at home and at the Native Organizers Alliance. Some of the participants will help organize local Native trainings in Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota. One participant even volunteered to become a Native Organizers Alliance trainer.

On the national level, we are organizing a national advisory board and growing a circle of partner organizations that we will provide with trainings, and technical support such as research and joint fundraising to keep grassroots organizing moving in Indian Country.

Personally, it was inspiring to hear the journeys so many have taken to carry on and preserve – despite many difficulties – our history, cultures, and future. It is extremely important in our communities to widen the circle of those who can take action that will in many ways help our people to heal with pride and commitment to our common struggle.

I was also struck by the heightened awareness of the need for unity in Indian Country. There is so much more that unites us than divides us. The unity that exists between those who organize on the Rez, in rural areas or urban centers, and those who continue the struggle for tribal recognition, serves as the key to building alliances with the vast cross section of people in the U.S. – those who can and must be a part of the movement for justice in Indian Country.

The curriculum, preparation, and training, was a collaborative effort and would not have been possible without Ozawa Bineshi Albert (former organizer for the Center for Community Change and Native American Voters Alliance in New Mexico) and Donavon Hawk (activist and leader from Montana), my co-facilitators.

With much love and respect to all who participated in the 2015 Native Organizing Training. A new circle of movement building in Indian Country has begun, thank you!

For more information on the Native Organizers Alliance:

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.

Using Our Stories to Win: Native Organizing Alliance Webinar

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As Native people, no one knows our issues and struggles better than we do. Storytelling, an art form that is indigenous to us, can be used to shift power dynamics and substantiate ourselves as experts on the social justice issues that we fight for. In this hour-long webinar witness Native organizers discuss ways to capture the stories that enliven our communities, how to make a case for change, and how to use stories to build and leverage power in campaigns.  

Recorded September 8, 2014. Hosted by Danisha Christian.

Beyond Cellblocks Webinar: Ending Police-ICE Collaboration

This year, Alliance for a Just Society is hosting a series of webinars discussing techniques used in different parts of the country to combat racism and criminalization.  Our most recent webinar focused on tactics for ending police collaboration with Immigration officials.   This Friday, at 11 a.m., join us for a webinar on Native American storytelling. Click here to register for the storytelling webinar.

A little bit about our last webinar: Throughout the country, police have been partnering with immigration services, resulting in unfair targeting and treatment of racial minorities. On July 1, the Alliance for a Just Society and the Center for Intercultural Organizing convened a live webinar discussion about ending collaboration between local law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Continue reading “Beyond Cellblocks Webinar: Ending Police-ICE Collaboration”

Poor, in Prison – and Pregnant

pregnant-inmateAs poverty levels in the U.S. increase, safety nets are  slashed, and families are left with few options for survival. As a result, more people are forced into difficult economic decisions, including alternative street-based economies and crime from sheer economic desperation. Many of these people are women and mothers.

Among women who are fortunate enough to have employment – women of color, are still making 64 cents on the dollar compared to men. (For white women, it is  77 cents on the dollar.) These women are also most likely to be the primary caregivers for children. Add in the high cost of childcare and the amount of money that women have left to live on is abysmal. Continue reading “Poor, in Prison – and Pregnant”

“We Say They Can Stay,” Native American Leaders Protest Immigrant Detension

By Simmi Bagri
Alliance for a Just Society

ICE Protest-1cropThe annual Alliance for A Just Society’s Advanced Native Organizers Training, was sponsored by the Praxis Project and hosted at the  Alliance’s office in Seattle this month, drew leaders from tribes and organizations from around the country. They came from as far as Virginia, Alaska, South Dakota, and New Mexico, and as near as Oregon and the Yakima Valley.

They brought with them their history, their culture, and stories of the injustices being faced in their communities. They brought an array of unique perspectives on issues ranging from fighting for food sovereignty to challenging the destruction of native lands through construction of oil pipelines. Continue reading ““We Say They Can Stay,” Native American Leaders Protest Immigrant Detension”

Polling Places on Reservations Would Protect Native’s Right to Vote

photo (9)None of us can afford to take the right to vote for granted – as Native Americans living on reservations in Montana can confirm. On the Fort Belknap, Northern Cheyenne, and Crow reservations, Native Americans who want to vote, or even register to vote, have to travel as much as 180 miles over rough, rural roads to reach county election offices.

The distance and the expense are serious barriers to accessing the ballot box.

Mark Wandering Medicine, a Northern Cheyenne, has filed a lawsuit in Montana calling for satellite voting offices on reservations, a step that will remove the hardship and the barriers that Native Americans face trying vote.

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe reservation in southeastern Montana is one of the most isolated. Traveling to Forsyth, the county seat, means having a vehicle, affording gas, then hours on rugged roads.

“We have a tough time of it really, most people just don’t have the means of going all the way over there,” he said. “It is a real hardship to go, and once we arrive there, we are not treated well. We run into a lot of discrimination. Continue reading “Polling Places on Reservations Would Protect Native’s Right to Vote”

2014 Advanced Native Organizers Training

The Alliance for a Just Society’s Native Organizing Alliance is pleased to announce our annual Native Organizers Training this spring! Sponsored by the Communities Creating Healthy Environments Initiative, this is a four day intensive workshop on community organizing that covers building and leveraging people-power,76848_10202867522349938_1685908019_n campaign planning, community led policy change; and how to use our stories to win battles.

This workshop focuses on skill building while recognizing the considerations of organizing in Indian Country. Because of historic underfunding in Indian Country, organizing infrastructure is lacking. This training is an opportunity to bolster that infrastructure through relationship building, peer support and coordination with other Natives who are doing community organizing. This workshop prepares organizers for leading a community driven campaign on the issues and concerns that are relevant to Indian Country. Continue reading “2014 Advanced Native Organizers Training”

The Struggle is Real – Changing the Conversation in Montana

When the Montana Department of Corrections issued its 2013 Biennial Report , the department’s own numbers finally substantiated exactly what the community has known all along: Montana is disproportionately locking away (9)

One out of every five men in prison in Montana is Native American – far above the rate that Natives are represented in the state’s general population. About 36 percent of all women incarcerated in Montana are Native.

Prisons are rooted in a long history of racism and oppression in this country.

The faces of this problem are not only Black and Latino, but also Native. It’s not exclusively an urban problem, restricted to the ghettos of Chicago and New York. Rural America is also locking up people of color in disproportionate numbers.
Continue reading “The Struggle is Real – Changing the Conversation in Montana”

The Symposium in Review: #CellBlocks and #Borderstops… #Human Beings

Re-Posted from the Institute for Pragmatic Practice (

In the last four decades, mass incarceration and immigration control in the United States has skyrocketed. Our nation has become an engine thatIPPImage pulls people from their communities, removing them from the very fabric that gives them their humanity. Over-policing of everyday lives has made the simple act of walking down one’s street a criminal act. The criminalization of communities is evermore presenting itself as a system of violence against them.

The Institute for Pragmatic Practice held an incredible symposium October 17-18, that brought voice to those affected by incarceration.  Cell Blocks and Border Stops: Transformation in the age of dehumanization brought faces to those who have been invisible behind walls and in communities that are left behind. Continue reading “The Symposium in Review: #CellBlocks and #Borderstops… #Human Beings”