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Focus on philanthropy: Indian country needs more support

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NEW YORK- American Indians are starting to see a bigger piece of this country's multi-billion dollar foundation pie. But they could be forgiven for thinking they're still only getting the crumbs.

According to the Foundation Center, a research group that tracks philanthropic giving, grants to Native Americans increased from 640 totaling $61 million in 1998, to 603 for $74.1 million in 1999, to 773 adding up to $78.3 million in 2000.

But that hefty 28.4 percent increase can't disguise the fact that amount was just six-tenths of one percent of all the giving done by the 1,016 larger institutions tracked by the Foundation Center. That's much smaller than the Indian share of the population, and vastly smaller than Indian need would dictate. And anecdotal evidence suggests 2001 and 2002 may have seen a downturn, as the economy retreated from the dot-com boom.

Not that there haven't been some eye-popping grants to support Native issues. According to the Center, the Lilly Endowment's $30 million grant to the American Indian College Fund, Denver, ranks in the top 50 of all grants made in this country over the past 30 years.

And there are some institutions, like the Ford Foundation and the Packard Foundation that contributed more than $10 million apiece to Native causes for 2000, the most recent year the Center has data for. But track down to the bottom of their top 50 list, and there's a foundation from Idaho, that made one grant, for just $200,000.

Rebecca Adamson, president of First Nations Development Institute of Fredericksburg, Va., feels the Indian share of the foundation pie is "disappointingly low. I think it's going to get lower," she said. "People are pulling back. People cut Indian grants first."

Her own non-profit, which is not quite a foundation although it often acts like one, currently ranks tenth in the country in dollar volume of grants, at about $1.5 million a year, she said. And it ranks first in the number of grants given to Native projects, about 100 per year, since many FNDI grants are small, seed-money contributions. That's a commentary, not on her success, but on the failure of others to outstrip that small amount, she feels.

That being said, there are many instances where foundation money has made a difference in Indian country. They range from the hefty - a breathtaking $20 million grant by the Minnesota-based Northwest Area Foundation to recover lost Indian territory in an eight-state region - to the modest, like a $30,000 grant by the Ford Foundation to the Indigenous Information Network of Kenya, to support a conference set to be held there late last year.

And, foundations fund a wide range of activities. The Ford Foundation is a staunch supporter of international indigenous rights, as is First Nations. California-based Packard, like Indiana-based Lilly, has been a strong backer of the American Indian College Fund. The Lannan Foundation of New Mexico has carved out a niche by granting money to tribes to help them buy back their traditional land bases. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation of Washington state has undertaken a vigorous effort to provide computers and Internet access to tribes in the Four Corners states. Others have aided housing and Native agriculture.

The big grantors

The Ford and Packard Foundations each made more than $10 million in Native grants in 2000, and it shows. A word search on "American Indian" or "Native American" or "Indigenous" at the Ford Foundation's Web site turns up dozens of grants made for those categories. It has frequently funded Adamson's First Nations Development Institute; with more than $3 million in the last several years. Ford has also backed the Native American Rights Fund Inc. of Boulder, Colo., with grants of $1.5 million, $1 million and some lesser amounts.

Ford also sponsors (along with the Advocacy Institute) something called the Leadership for a Changing World Program. Last year's $130,000 in awards included one that recognized the far-reaching work of a group on the Tohono O'odham reservation in Arizona, a homeland all too well known for a raging epidemic of diet-related diabetes.

Terroll Dew Johnson and Tristan Reader, co-directors of Tohono O'odham Community Action, were cited for attacking four bedrock problems on the Connecticut-sized rez: lack of economic development; the crumbling of an old agricultural tradition; loss of culture and Native language; and lack of support for youth.

TOCA was cited for developing a community food program, the Tohono O'odham Basketweavers Organization, an art and culture program, and a Youth/Elder outreach initiative.

Probably what most caught the grantor's eye, however, was an 11-day, 250 mile desert walk to promote traditional food production that it co-sponsored in Arizona and Mexico. The Tohono O'odham were ace desert farmers in their day, using flash flood methods and the annual monsoon rains to produce foods like tepary beans that slowed metabolism and kept diabetes at bay.

Once the tens of thousands of acres of farmlands were abandoned in the 1930s, that healthy lifestyle gave way to a fat and sugar diet. And once the rituals associated with agriculture were no longer performed, language and culture deteriorated.

TOCA is trying to put some of those fallow fields back into production, tapping knowledge that today's elders learned back in the 1930s, from their grandfathers, the last generation of Tohono farmers.

Ford has also funded the American Indian College Fund, but for lesser amounts than those from Lilly or Packard. A $2 million grant from Packard in June 1999, to build math and science classrooms at tribal colleges, was the biggest funding the group had received up to that time. Packard also gave money directly to the tribal colleges, adding an additional $2.5 million in 1999 above the AICF grant.

Packard continues to support Indian education, through a Tribal Scholarship Fund that is now administered by AICF.

But its $2 million grant was soon dwarfed by the Lilly grant of $30 million, the largest single grant ever to an Indian institution. It was given in a lump sum to pay for construction of classrooms, libraries and laboratories at tribal colleges.

It was also designed to leverage even more money, a $120 million campaign AICF is conducting over five years.

Wiping the tears

In some cases, outfits that played a less than beneficial role in Indian history in previous centuries are starting to make up for it. The Northwest Area Foundation of Minnesota is a good example. This foundation, started by the son of James J. Hill, founder of the Great Northern Railway, now attempts to reduce poverty in the eight-state area from Minnesota through Washington and Oregon served by the railroad, an area rich with tribes and reservations.

The coming of the railroads often meant the eroding of Indian land bases, and the NWAF is funding, to the tune of $20 million, a spectacular effort to reverse that. Here is the sweeping vision statement of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, the group NWAF is supporting: "Lands within the original boundaries of every reservation and other areas of high significance where tribes retain aboriginal interest in the Northwest Area Foundation's region are in Indian ownership and management."

The foundation believes that restoration of these lost territories will reduce the terrible poverty of the Indians living within its territory.

"In the eight-state region, more than 65 million acres of land has left Indian control since the end of treaty creation between tribes and the federal government. Nearly 20 million acres were lost from 1890 to 1900. Of the remaining 16 million acres, nearly seven million acres are fractionated. The historic and ongoing loss of land from Indian ownership and control has contributed to the high rate of poverty among Indians," according to NWAF.

The Little Canada, Minn.-based Indian Land Tenure Foundation, the recipient of $20 million in a lump sum from NWAF last March, says its main priorities will be:

o To educate every Indian landowner about land management, ownership and transference issues.

o To gain control of Indian lands and create financial models that convert land into leverage for Indian owners.

o To use Indian land to help Indian people discover and maintain their culture.

o To reform laws so that Indian people can recapture the physical, cultural and economic assets of their land and their sovereignty over it.

Cris Stainbook, Lakota, president of ILTF, which currently has five full time employees, worked for NWAF for 12 years prior to the startup of the new land group. He acknowledges the irony of a railroad-related foundation helping recover Indian lands, and said an even further irony is that the group's strategic plan was hashed out during a long train ride from St. Paul to Seattle, as it passed through the very land they were talking about. But, "this isn't something James J. Hill would necessarily have a problem with," he chuckled.

Indeed, Census Bureau reports show the descendants of white settlers leaving many of the areas, with the Indian residents staying and growing, he said.

Stainbrook said NWAF changed its funding style to focus on communities - both geographic ones, and communities of interest, where Indian country and ITLF fit in. It had made a few Indian-land grants, such as to the Indian Land Working Group, but nothing near the scope of the ILTF project. That group began after a 1998 meeting of the Indian Land Working Group in Montana, and spent the next three and a half years hashing out Indian land issues and problems.

"We talked to hundreds and maybe even thousands of Indian people before we were done," Stainbrook said.

He said the group convinced the foundation that the land issue was central to the NWAF's mission of reducing poverty. "If Indian people control the land, they have higher assets," Stainbrook said - and the funder agreed.

"This is just injustice at its greatest," Stainbrook said of the historic reduction in Indian control over their traditional landbases. But does he feel ILTF can achieve the return of control over 65 million acres.

Stainbrook admitted he sometimes stays up at night worrying about the scope of the project. "This is not a short-term effort," he said. "This will take 50, 60, 70 years of work."

But the ILTF is on its way. It has just made its first grant - to the Klamath Tribe of Oregon, to help it regain control of some of its land base, which is now part of a federal national forest.

Following logically

Unlike NWAF, where there is a disconnect between a reckless past and a more socially responsible present, the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Indian country couldn't be more connected to the work of the well-known founder of Microsoft Corp. The Foundation has spent the last three years providing computers, training and Internet access to the tribes in the Four Corners states.

While it's not hard to guess the kind of software that powers the donated Gateway computers - Microsoft, of course - it is hard not to be impressed by the scope of the project. It has donated $6.9 million of equipment to date to Navajo chapter houses, libraries, and other public access areas all across the Four Corners region.

The project is an adjunct of an even bigger effort - to donate computers and equipment to all libraries in the United States serving high-poverty areas.

But when the Gates library project got to New Mexico, it encountered Indian country, a place of such daunting poverty that often the libraries are few and far between.

So a special initiative, the Native American Access to Technology Program, was started. Creative substitutes for library-less places were found, like Navajo Nation chapter houses. And from New Mexico, NAATP expanded into Colorado, Utah and Arizona.

The first grant, for $45,902, was granted to the Pueblo of Jemez in late 1999 to enable wireless Internet access to its community library, and the program accelerated greatly in 2001 and last year.

Besides the digital divide the foundation found, it also found a dial tone divide, as many places in the Four Corners area have a low telephone penetration percentage. So the foundation decided to work with a satellite provider, OnSat Network Telecommunications.

A total of 161 communities from 42 tribes participated in the program. According to Jessica Dorr, project coordinator for the foundation "All sites received between two and four public access computers, peripheral equipment, Internet connectivity, training and technical support."

Project totals were 802 workstations, 38 content servers, 165 digital cameras, 167 scanners and 492 headset microphones. In addition, 867 classes were held and training was provided to more than 1,750 tribal members.

"Historically, native households have extremely low rates of telephone access or personal computers. Nevertheless, with the completion of the Program, tribes in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah now have the opportunity to provide technology resources for their members. We hope that our grants and activities will serve as a catalyst for increased technology access for tribes in these states and that tribal councils will place a high priority on technology maintenance and support for long-term sustainability," Dorr said.

As part of the program, the Gates Foundation made a $100,000 grant last year to the Indigenous Language Institute of Santa Fe, for a state-of-the-art development center to help preserve Native languages. The Foundation also granted $385,000 to the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Corp. to support the Tribal Technologies Program in providing technology planning assistance to Washington State tribes.

Dorr, project coordinator for the foundation, and Richard Akeroyd, executive director of the Libraries project at the foundation, co-authored an article on the program for the publication Computers in Libraries. Reading it gives a sense of how foundations can make a positive impact in Indian country, even if it is only one small grant at a time. Dorr's sense of excitement and passion for hooking up remote tribal areas comes through quite clearly.

"Some days you get up and go to work, you answer the phone, write some e-mails, and sit in meetings," the article starts. "But some days you get up and go to work, and your life changes."