ucla school of law recently received $15 million from the Federated Indians of Graton Racheria. Michael Gordon/shutterstock
ucla school of law recently received $15 million from the Federated Indians of Graton Racheria. Michael Gordon/shutterstock

Back in July, Inside Philanthropy’s Michael Kavate looked at how institutional funders were revisiting their historically tepid support to Native American communities in the wake of the pandemic and heightened calls for racial justice. Erik Stegman, the executive director of Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP) told Kavate, “I hope philanthropy is ready to join us, because if there was ever a moment for true systems change, it’s right now.”

Transformative support from institutional funders is far from certain. U.S. grantmakers gave, on average, only 0.4% of total annual funding to Native causes from 2002 to 2016. In fact, Stegman attributed the Native American community’s recent advances to the work of Native-led organizations, such as the Indigenous Environmental Network, rather than institutional philanthropy or individual donors.

Four months after Kavate’s piece, tribal nations themselves continue to keep the money flowing. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a restored tribe serving Marin and Sonoma counties in Northern California, recently gave the UCLA School of Law $15 million to advance the study and practice of Native American law. UCLA will earmark the funds for scholarships supporting students pursuing careers as tribal legal advocates and create the Graton Scholars program at UCLA Law’s Native Nations Law and Policy Center. Students don’t have to be Native American to receive scholarships, but “must demonstrate an interest in pursuing tribal legal advocacy,” wrote the Press Democrat’s Phil Barber.

The gift, the largest-ever contribution made by a tribe to a law school, and one of the biggest ever from a tribe to a university, suggests that whether or not institutional philanthropy steps up its game, native funders are poised to be influential players in a post-pandemic world.

“Tribal law is a cornerstone of Native Americans’ quest for equality and inclusion within the U.S. justice system,” said Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. “We hope this gift will begin the drive for equity for our people in our Native land.”

Tribal Funders as “Important Actors”

The UCLA gift comes a little over a year after NAP and Candid published a report titled “Investing in Native Communities: Philanthropic Funding for Native American Communities and Causes. Authors explored the role of a “relatively small number of donors” across the funding ecosystem, plus prominent native-led charities like Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the American Indian College Fund, and First Nations Development Institute.

While “there is currently no systematic method in place to track tribal grantmaking,” Native-led foundations “are important actors in the funding ecosystem,” wrote the authors. The study provided the following examples of giving by tribal nations:

  • The CIRI Foundation, a private tribal foundation established in 1982, has awarded more than $28 million to Alaska Native beneficiaries to participate in post-secondary education.
  • Since the opening of its Gaming Enterprise in the 1990s, the Minnesota-based Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community has donated more than $350 million to Native and non-Native nonprofits, healthcare facilities and local governments.
  • Washington state tribes’ charitable giving totaled $7.8 million in 2009, according to the Washington Indian Gaming Association.
  • Oregon tribal foundations gave more than $100.2 million from 1997 to 2014, according to First Nations Development Institute.

“It is not uncommon for tribes, particularly those with successful gaming operations, to be some of the largest contributors to their local communities, including to non-Native communities,” read the study.

According to Business Insider, more than 200 tribes operate more than 400 casinos in the United States. In 2018, the revenue of Indian gaming operations reached $33.7 billion.

Recent Tribal Gifts

The report cited the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which owns the San Manuel Casino in Highland, California, as a tribe that gives to Native and non-Native communities. The tribe gave $25 million to the Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital in 2019, the second-largest gift ever to the hospital at the time.

Earlier this year, the Southern California-based tribe donated $9 million to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas—$6 million to fund an endowed chair in the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality and $3 million for program support at the William S. Boyd School of Law. The donation, which aims to position the university as the nation’s leading source for education and innovation related to tribal gaming operations and law, is the largest out-of-state philanthropic gift the tribe has given to an educational or healthcare institution.

“San Manuel has such a robust philanthropy program and we always do what we can to assist others in need, not only in our local communities and backyards, but around the country and in different states,” said San Manuel Tribal Chairwoman Lynn Valbuena.

We’ve also seen several pandemic-era commitments from Native-led funders:

  • The Snoqualmie Indian Tribe awarded nearly $1 million in donations to Native and non-Native nonprofits across Washington state.
  • The Poarch Band of Creek Indians made a $1 million donation to Alabama’s Atmore Community Hospital to offset costs of coronavirus testing and pay for other urgent and long-term needs.
  • Tohono O’odham Nation announced a $2 million commitment to Arizona State University and the University of Arizona for COVID-19 research.
  • Cherokee Nation awarded $6 million to local Oklahoma school districts; the tribe has given $62.3 million to local districts since 2002.

For a deeper dive into tribal giving, check out Grantmakers in the Arts’ list of independently incorporated Native American foundations culled from a report by the Center for Urban Research.

An Alumni Connection

Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria is a federally recognized American Indian tribe of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians. The tribe was officially restored to federal recognition in 2000 by the U.S. government pursuant to the Graton Rancheria Restoration Act.

The tribe operates the Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park, about 45 miles north of San Francisco. It has made several gifts to nearby Sonoma State University, including $2.85 million to revitalize the Fairfield Osborn Preserve, $1.5 million to establish an endowed chair in creative writing and Native American studies, a $20,000 endowed student scholarship fund, and $700,000 toward the university’s Summer Bridge program.

As is the case with most big higher ed commitments, the tribe’s gift to UCLA Law has an alumni connection. Tribe chairman Greg Sarris received his undergraduate degree from UCLA, and returned to his alma mater to teach English for more than a decade. “UCLA’s commitment to educating and preparing the next generation of tribal legal advocates is personally known to me,” said Sarris, who was raised in Santa Rosa and led the push for the restoration of the tribe as a federally recognized American Indian nation.

Your Move, Non-Native Funders

All of which brings me back to Michael Kavate’s July piece on philanthropy’s evolving support for Native communities. Four months later, tribal funders continue to hold up their end of the bargain. But what about Stegman’s hope that non-Native institutional funders will advance “true systems change?”

The prognosis is mixed. As far as the higher ed space is concerned, we’ve yet to see the kinds of paradigm-shattering gifts that have flowed to historically black colleges and universities and, to a lesser extent, community colleges.

That said, we’ve seen some encouraging developments. In late July, MacKenzie Scott gave $20 million to the Albuquerque-based American Indian Graduate Center, the largest provider of scholarships to Native American students. Scott also gave the First Nations Development Institute $8 million in unrestricted funds in support of its efforts to strengthen Native American communities and economies. Considering Scott has pledged to spend down her $60 billion fortune during her lifetime, this could be good news for the Native American community.

And last month I spoke with American Indian College Funds’ chief marketing and development officer NancyJo Houk about her organization’s success in raising emergency funds from corporate funders like the United Health Foundation, Exxon Mobil and AT&T, plus institutional grantmakers and scores of individual donors. The amount of funding the AICF will distribute to students and tribal colleges in 2020-2021 is up 45% over 2019-2020.

Looking ahead, non-Native funders will want to check out NAP and Candid’s Investing in Native Communities website. Made possible with support from the Bush Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation, Marguerite Casey Foundation, Northwest Area Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the resource provides data and research to help grantmakers best support Native communities and causes. For example, a search of “university education” shows 200 grants from 89 funders totaling $38.1 million.

The site aims to address whatEdgar Villanueva, chair of NAP’s board and author of “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance,” called a “lack of available information” that led philanthropy to consistently under-fund Native communities and, in particular, Native-led organizations. “This website,” Villanuevasaid at the time, “is an important tool to begin to fill this knowledge gap and drive more attention and investment to Native communities.”