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Invisible Native Americans of Wealth

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It will no doubt surprise some people that there actually are individual Native Americans who own significant material assets. They belong to an invisible group, along with African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and others of color with wealth. The stereotype holds that people of wealth by definition must be White. It is certainly true that the American economic system has long privileged White folks and has erected structural barriers to economic participation by people of color, including of course, seizing Indian land and in every way trying to destroy traditional economies. Nevertheless, there are individual Native Americans who have succeeded in accumulating wealth or who have become wealthy through tribal gaming or natural resource per capita payments. A recent blog post by Pam Pompey, executive director of The Ujamaa Institute in North Carolina and a recent post by Theo Yang Copley on Resource Generation’s website pushed me to reflect on how the invisibility of wealthy Native Americans can be a barrier to growing Native philanthropy.

Those precious few of us who are Native American and work inside institutional philanthropy believe it is time that we invited these individuals to participate as donors in helping to improve conditions in our communities. Many donors have learned through coming together that they can have a collective impact that may not be achievable alone. Many potential donors do not know where to start and may feel overwhelmed by the seemingly infinite range of possibilities of giving. Some are afraid of becoming visible as people of wealth because they might be treated differently or be viewed as just a potential source of funds. These are not uncommon feelings and fortunately, there are people out there who can help. Public foundations like my own can provide advice on philanthropic giving and help you network with other donors. First Nations Development Institute has a training program for wealth management specifically for Native people.

The need for full participation in philanthropy by those in our own communities with wealth is easily illustrated. A recently released study by the Foundation Center and Native Americans in Philanthropy showed that foundation giving benefiting Native Americans has been unacceptably poor. For example,

•In 2009, grants for Native Americans equaled just three-tenths of one percent of total philanthropic giving,
•Since 2000, the share of overall foundation giving targeting Native Americans has declined,
•The top 10 funders for Native Americans in 2009 accounted for close to 3/5 of grant dollars,
•Giving for Native Americans dropped a whopping 30.8% between 2008 and 2009 but only 14.1% overall, and
•82% of the foundations studied gave no grants at all benefiting Native Americans.

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This is certainly disturbing news. Institutional philanthropy has been around for over a century but its interest and investments in Native American communities has remained pitifully low, and regretfully, appears to be going down.

One of the arguments that supports institutional philanthropy’s existence—apart from the tax code of course—is that private charitable dollars are more flexible than government grants and theoretically at least, more amenable to risk-taking. Good ideas and innovation can be nurtured and supported by private charitable funds, with the idea that eventually, other private or public investments will maintain them. Problem is, most foundations appear not to believe that Native communities and individuals have good ideas or are as capable of the kind of innovation that deserve as much—or perhaps even more—support than other communities. It is certainly puzzling (to put as kind a spin on it as possible).

Native donors, familiar with their own communities and having a better understanding of their needs, are in a unique position not only to help provide starter fuel for good ideas and innovative projects, but also to leverage funds from non-Native donors by being the first in. By taking risks on good ideas, they can also help grease the rails for institutions to jump in. Native donors can also organize themselves and as importantly, can provide support for others to organize in our communities. Examples might be helping youth to organize to convince authorities to build a youth center where they can safely gather; helping communities to organize to strengthen their influence on public policy at the tribal, local, state, and federal government levels; or helping residents band together to oppose environmentally harmful plans and policies or to rid themselves of environmental health threats. So much needs to be done and Native individuals and families of wealth can play an important role helping sustain grassroots initiatives in Native America.

Let me invite any reader who recognizes him or herself in this article to seriously consider becoming a philanthropist. You may just find that it changes your life. Yakoke!

Ron Rowell is President of Native Americans in Philanthropy ( and CEO of the Common Counsel Foundation in Oakland, CA. He is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and serves as Chairman of the board of Friendship House Association of American Indians in San Francisco. He can be contacted at