Listening and learning for change—one of our core values—pays immediate and long-term dividends in Indian Country.

As I sat down to write this piece, I realized how much my concept of good grantmaking has evolved through valuable lessons from Native colleagues and interactions in Indian Country.

Living into our commitment to provide at least 40 percent of new grants to Native-led groups has expanded my understanding of prosperity and thriving, of supporting systemic change, and of advancing justice. These ideas have informed our staff, too, and stand at the center of the Foundation’s values and grantmaking approach.

Showing up and listening are the heart of the matter for foundations to be of real use in Indian Country. To illustrate this, I’d like to lift up four statements by Native partners that have profoundly shaped my learning journey.

How did you find us?

In 2019, we held a board retreat in northern Idaho and eastern Washington. While we were visiting the Spokane Tribe of Indians in their homelands, we met a group of young people.

They welcomed us into a traditional gathering space, a structure dug into the earth, where they described programming rooted in the tribe’s culture, traditions, and worldview.

Our board members tried to draw out the young people, who seemed shy about interacting with us—probably wondering what the heck a foundation is and what a foundation board was doing in their space. Finally, one young woman said she had a question: “How did you find us?”

That was her question to the board. How did you find us?

“The girl’s question reminds me to be humble and open to new perspectives because she is the expert on her own life and culture.”

I’ve learned a lot from that girl’s question. It reminds me of my own distance from her lived experiences and the need to close that distance in any way I can.

We were showing up to learn about what our Spokane grantee partners were doing so we could be responsive to their own, self-determined vision of how to help their youth find good pathways in life. But the girl’s question reminds me to be humble and open to new perspectives because she is the expert on her own life and culture.

There’s nothing “traditional” about being poor.

I made my first visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota when I was new in this job. Elsie Meeks (Oglala Lakota), a Foundation board member at the time, showed me around and introduced me to community members.

Elsie Meeks

She’d also served in a leadership position at Lakota Funds. As we discussed its work, she made a simple but unforgettable statement about her Lakota people: “There’s nothing ‘traditional’ about being poor.”

She meant that Native societies, on the Great Plains and across this continent, were sustainable and self-sufficient for many generations before contact with European settlers and the westward expansion of the United States.

In her straight-talking way, Elsie was teaching me that traditional Indigenous communities are rich in assets. The resource poverty and isolation of the reservation era are colonial impositions upon these Native nations.

“Elsie’s words remain a powerful reminder to trust our grantee partners to tell us what asset-building looks like in the context of their community.

Informed by that learning, we’re insistent on using an asset-based frame in our approach. This means recognizing the richness of Native communities’ resources, culture, connection to the land, and generational knowledge. It helps frame the trauma, challenges, and injustices inflicted on Native communities within the broader context of their ability to survive and thrive.

Elsie’s words remain a powerful reminder to trust our grantee partners to tell us what asset-building looks like in the context of their community.

We won’t keep playing by your rules when we realize your rules are killing us.

One of our board meetings during the depths of the COVID pandemic featured a Zoom panel discussion of grantees who described what it means to drive racial, social, and economic justice in their communities.

Lakota Vogel

Lakota Vogel (Cheyenne River Sioux), the executive director of a longtime grantee partner Four Bands Community Fund, explained to our board that Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs) don’t aspire to be miniature banks. Instead, they shift away from systems that financially marginalize their communities, keep people in debt, and make it impossible for people to gain access to credit to take care of their families or build businesses.

I’ll never forget how she explained it: “We won’t keep playing by your rules when we realize your rules are killing us.”

This stark but beautiful statement reminds me how vital it is to focus on changing systems. We need to shift away from oppressive economic and social structures that hold back Native communities’ ability to thrive. Equipping people to do a little better in a rigged game is not the goal. Changing the game is the goal.

Her comment is also a great reminder about why it’s so vital for us to lean hard into trusting our grantees to define prosperity and achieve it on their terms.

“Equipping people to do a little better in a rigged game is not the goal. Changing the game is the goal.

See like an eagle, not like a mouse.

About a decade ago, we hosted a discussion of community-driven antipoverty strategies at a convening of representatives from three tribes we’d been working with: Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and the Lummi Nation.

One of our staff members was gathering up everything discussed at the convening, and he captured the comment in his write-up: “See like an eagle, not like a mouse.”

That line runs through my mind all the time. It helps me remember to think long term about our grantee relationships.

If you arrive in a Native community and see like a mouse, you may assume the obstacles to future prosperity are insurmountable. It’s hard to see beyond the difficulties and traumas of the present.

“Seeing like an eagle takes you to a broader vein of thinking: ‘We’re trying to be a part of a long story of self-determination and liberation.’”

These challenges are real, of course, and our grantees are often stretched thin and under-resourced. In this context, it’s easy to see like a mouse and worry too much about whether they can deliver on what they propose.

But seeing like an eagle takes you to a broader vein of thinking: We’re trying to be a part of a long story of self-determination and liberation.

Partnering in that spirit requires a kind of radical openness—to learning as we go, to trusting our grantees, and to staying in a relationship for the long haul.

Author

Kevin

Kevin Walker

President and CEO, Northwest Area Foundation

Kevin spearheads the Foundation’s efforts to shape a future in which all people and communities in its region can thrive on their own terms and live free of poverty. Under his leadership, the Foundation has sharpened its focus on asset building in a set of priority communities: Native Americans, communities of color, immigrants, refugees, and people in rural areas. Read more about Kevin.

Contact Kevin’s office.

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