Photo courtesy of First Peoples Fund.
Photo courtesy of First Peoples Fund.

In 1995, philanthropist and Native American activist Jennifer Easton founded First Peoples Fund as a donor-advised fund at the Tides Foundation to support Native artist-entrepreneurs and culture bearers. In 2003, the organization was established as a separate nonprofit headquartered in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Since its inception, the fund has distributed $4.2 million in grants, fees and honoraria to more than 324 Native artists from 33 states and 133 tribal nations. Through regranting to community-based organizations, it has awarded $1.7 million, reaching more than 33 tribal communities.

Relationship-building lies at the heart of the fund’s 11 programs, which seek to support artists and culture bearers in an intergenerational way. “We’ve always looked at the fund from a holistic perspective of ‘What is happening in this particular family and within that extended family,’ and then how we can support that work in the regional and national community,” the fund’s President Lori Pourier told me.

In January, the fund received a lead gift for its $15 million fundraising campaign, dubbed the Collective Spirit Legacy Fund—$1.5 million from longtime supporter Katherine Hayes through the St. Paul-based HRK Foundation. A month later, Pourier began receiving phone calls from representatives acting on behalf of another donor, anonymous this time. I suspect readers can guess what happened next.

On June 15, the fund announced that it had received an unrestricted $6 million gift from MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett. “This gift will help launch our Collective Spirit Legacy Fund campaign and is a major milestone for our mission, our work, and the Native artists and communities that we are connected with,” Pourier said at the time.

This encouraging sequence of events mirrors funders’ evolving support for Native-led organizations. For decades, outfits like First Peoples Fund methodically expanded their reach thanks to steadfast support from a small group of dedicated funders. Nevertheless, support for Native-led organizations remained only a tiny fraction of total foundation grantmaking.

Then 2019 turned into 2020. Many funders gave historically underfunded organizations a second look in the wake of both the pandemic, which disproportionately hit Native communities; and the Black Lives Matter movement, which integrated Indigenous issues into its campaign against systemic inequity. Scott’s giving, of course, kicked off during that moment. Funder choices over the next 12 months will determine whether this uptick in support for Native-led organizations is a short-term blip or the first step in a sustained effort to build a more resilient and financially secure ecosystem.

“I’d love to see funders continue to take big risks in its pursuit of social justice and community development work,” Pourier said. “The key is to shift the narrative and call on philanthropy to disrupt its practices and way of thinking.”

Highlighting the importance of culture bearers

Lori Lea Pourier (Oglala Lakota) was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Her early work began at First Nations Development Institute, which assists Native American tribes, their communities and Native nonprofits in economic development by providing technical assistance, training, policy insight and grants.

At the institute, Pourier worked closely with its founder, businesswoman Rebecca Adamson, and current First Peoples Fund Chair Sherry Salway Black. (Pourier subsequently put me in touch with Black. Stay tuned for a separate piece on our conversation.)

Throughout her career, Pourier has explored alternative models and strategies for tribal communities. In this work, she has collaborated with financial institutions, tribal members and representatives from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund.

Upon taking the reins at First Peoples Fund in 1999, Pourier’s primary focus became integrating culture bearers who were restoring and reclaiming indigenous knowledge into community development models. For example, in 2013, Pourier contributed to a Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) report titled “Establishing a Creative Economy: Art as an Economic Engine in Native American Communities,” which explored the needs of reservation-based Native arts and articulated partners’ roles in supporting Native arts ecosystems.

“That’s where we really began to look at the needs of households,” Pourier told me, noting that 40% of Native households were engaged in some sort of home-based arts economy and that 70% of the work comprised “tradition-based” practices like weaving or quilt-making. The report’s findings shaped the fund’s support for individual artists. “They need access to capital, supplies and a strong informal social network to build thriving economies with tribal communities,” Pourier said.

The fund’s current offerings include the Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards, which recognize artists who embody their people’s cultural assets in their creations and their way of life; the Native Arts Ecology Building Grant to help Native organizations better support artists; and the Intercultural Leadership Institute, a year-long leadership experience for artists held in partnership with other BIPOC arts organizations.

A blind spot for philanthropy

In addition to her role at First Peoples Fund, Pourier has served two terms on the boards of directors of both the GIA and Native Americans in Philanthropy. She currently serves on the Jerome Foundation’s board of directors and the board of trustees of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Pourier’s extensive experience makes her all too familiar with philanthropy’s tepid support for Indigenous organizations, which has long hovered around 0.4% of total foundation funding. Support increased during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, but a 2019 report by Candid and Native Americans in Philanthropy found that gains in 2016 were “modest” and that total funding was still comparable to its pre-recession level in 2006 when adjusted for inflation.

Several factors may contribute to philanthropy’s blind spot around Native-led organizations. Last year, Joe Scantlebury, former vice president for place-based programs at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and incoming CEO of Living Cities, told IP’s Michael Kavate that funders would often operate under a premise like, “This is such a small population of people. Is it really worth our attention, our investment, our time?”

Then there’s foundations’ aversion to anything outside their comfort zones, especially in rural areas. Erik Stegman, executive director of Native Americans in Philanthropy, told Kavate that funders “don’t really understand how many different spaces” Native groups are “playing in, and how important they are.”

Pourier attributes this disconnect, in part, to the relative lack of Native people in philanthropy and to philosophical differences between how Native people think about wealth and how institutional grantmakers tend to. “Wealth to us is about our relationship to place, our connectedness to our relatives,” Pourier said. “But when you enter an institution, the definition of ‘wealth’ is something completely different. It’s a huge learning curve.”

“Starting to see a change”

Pourier told me she was “starting to see a change” across the Native nonprofit ecosystem before Scott’s gift. For example, when she first entered the field, there were only a handful of Native people working at major foundations. Now, one of the nation’s largest Native funders, Minneapolis’ Northwest Area Foundation, has Native staff and board members and earmarks 40% of its funding for Native causes.

My subsequent conversation with the First Peoples Fund’s chair, Sherry Salway Black, affirmed Pourier’s point. Black conducted a non-exhaustive search of the composition of foundation boards and calculated that as of July 21, there were at least 28 Native individuals who serve on the boards of 13 private foundations and nine Native people on the boards of seven community foundations. Though they might sound low, these can be seen as encouraging numbers given the sheer lack of Native representation in the sector, especially in the past.

All the while, First Peoples Fund has expanded its donor base and operations. Katherine Hayes’ HRK Foundation began supporting the fund over 10 years ago, making gifts in the $5,000–$10,000 range, which grew substantially over the years. On the institutional side, the fund received gifts from and created partnerships with the Bush, W.K. Kellogg, Northwest Area, and Ford foundations. (Ford, Pourier told me, provided the fund with a critical grant in its early years and “probably has the longest history of any funder of philanthropy in Indian country.”)

Over the past decade, the fund realized a 24% annual growth rate in its operating budget while its grantmaking “kept pace at 25% of our overall annual expenses,” according to the fund’s grants and individual giving manager Anna Huntington.

This progress didn’t occur in a vacuum. Pourier attributes it, in part, to leaders’ growing recognition of how the region’s wealth can be traced to extractive practices that adversely impacted Native communities.

Consider the backstory of one of the fund’s supporters, the Northwest Area Foundation. It was established in 1934 by Minnesota businessman Louis W. Hill. His father, James J. Hill, founded the Great Northern Railway, which displaced countless Native people in the upper Midwest during its construction in the late 19th century. In 2002, the foundation provided $20 million to restore some 90 million acres of appropriated land to Native ownership.

The Northwest Area Foundation’s leadership “began to ask questions 20 years ago,” Pourier said. “They looked at their history and their wealth and said, ‘What is it we need to do differently?’”

A transformative year

Despite these encouraging developments, many Native nonprofit leaders still found themselves running on a figurative treadmill. On one hand, representation on foundation boards had increased and organizations like First Peoples Fund were growing at a steady clip. But at the same time, the overall funding needle hadn’t moved all that much. Native causes hadn’t reached anything resembling critical mass across the broader philanthrosphere.

As the pandemic’s impact on Native communities became painfully clear, many experts hoped it would compel funders to address long-term funding inequities for Indigenous organizations.

Speaking to IP’s Kavate last July, Nick Tilsen, founder, president and CEO of NDN Collective, and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, said, “Imagine the wins that we’re on the cusp of right now in this country and the change that we’re seeking. This is an opportunity for philanthropy to show up in a way it has never shown up in the history of it as an institution.”

A month later, against the backdrop of the growing Black Lives Matter movement, Pourier joined a group of artists, scholars and activists to craft “The Cultural New Deal,” which called on funders, donors, governments and businesses to “address severe racial and cultural inequity in funding arts organizations for and by Black, Indigenous, and communities of color.”

Pourier cited another factor that has made funders pay attention to undercapitalized Native organizations—growing scrutiny of the United States’ “dark history” of placing indigenous children in boarding schools in the early 20th century. “Because our relatives were forced into boarding schools, much of the culture was lost,” she said.

To her point, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded $5 million in January to researchers at Concordia College’s Center for Social Solutions to “concentrate on issues related to generational trauma caused initially by cultural genocide in mandatory-attendance boarding school education.” The grant was part of Mellon’s new $72 million Just Futures Initiative, which examines how the study of past racial inequality can inform social transformation.

“My heart was filled”

It was also in January that the fund received its $1.5 million lead gift from Katherine Hayes. That gift didn’t magically appear out of thin air. As noted, Hayes has been increasingly generous to the fund over the past decade. She also attended funders’ tours with Pourier and her team on the Pine Ridge Reservation and in Klukwan, Alaska.

Hayes “has grown close to us and our work, and when she told us about the $1.5 million gift, she said she was practicing ‘redistributive philanthropy,’” Huntington said. “It was an incredibly generous approach. No strings attached; she structured the gift as a pledge and made interest payments on the remaining balance until it was entirely paid.” The transparent run-up to Hayes’ donation serves as a counterpoint to the other large gift the fund received in 2021.

It’s been over a year since MacKenzie Scott began her unprecedented grantmaking. During this time, the following narrative has emerged around how these gifts tend to materialize.

Without advanced warning, a nonprofit leader gets a call from an individual working on behalf of an unnamed donor. The leader answers questions about their organization’s work, reach, impact, finances and needs. The representative says thank you and hangs up. Sometimes, the representative calls back with follow-up questions. Otherwise, the representative calls back and asks the leader for their organization’s routing number so they can transfer an unrestricted multi-million-dollar gift.

Pourier told me this is exactly how Scott’s gift transpired. She also said that Scott’s emissaries came prepared. “We don’t know how we got on their radar,” Pourier said, “but they were well aware of our work.”

According to the fund’s press release, leaders will use the $6 million gift—a figure that far eclipses the fund’s $4.7 million operating budget in 2021—to “expand on its decades of impact and success, increasing the number of artists and practitioners the organization funds, increasing the size of the grants that artists can receive, and expanding into additional tribal communities across the country.”

Other Native groups that have received donations from Scott and Jewett include the American Indian College Fund, Native Americans in Philanthropy, and First Nations Development Institute. Given her prominence in the sector, Scott’s emergent support for Native communities is an encouraging sign that at least some of the present momentum in this space may continue. But unless a lot more funders follow Scott’s example in a consistent way, she may become just another one of those rare, if dedicated, backers of Native-led organizations—albeit one with a very large pocketbook.

In the meantime, the folks at First Peoples Fund are understandably pleased. “When I looked at thegrantee list, my heart was filled because we know so many of those organizations that are just like us, quietly working in their communities with limited resources,” Pourier said. “We are incredibly humbled to know that Scott and her husband brought together a collective of people to understand who’s working under the radar.”