Jennifer Easton, Founder of First Peoples Fund and Sumasil Foundation, Walked On

John Wagner/Native Peoples Magazine/Jennifer Easton walked on at the age of 69, August 1, 2017.

Suzette Brewer

Jennifer Easton, Founder of First Peoples Fund and Sumasil Foundation, Walked On.

Easton: ‘I wanted the general public to be more aware of the incredible artistic diversity I saw among indigenous people all over this country’

Updated August 10, 2017: To include a statement from Robert Redford, president and founder of Sundance Institute.

Jennifer Easton, a national leader in philanthropic support of Native interests and cultures, passed away on Tuesday, August 1, from complications after surgery. She was 69.

In addition to founding the First Peoples Fund and the Sumasil Foundation, Easton also helped launch the Sundance Institute’s Native Program and supported the creation of a buffalo refuge on Cheyenne River, and many other contributions to Indian country. Notably, Easton also funded Oregon Natural Resource Council v. U.S. Forest Service in the 1980s to preserve Oregon’s old growth forests from commercial logging. The ancient forests are home to the endangered northern spotted owl and other species.

Born in 1947 in Glen Cove, New York, Easton grew up among the Mohawk people along the St. Lawrence River in Ogdensburg. Though non-Native, she formed an early appreciation and connection to the culture and its people. After her mother passed away in the early 1990s, she made the decision to contribute her inheritance to Native causes.

“To my way of thinking, it all starts with the family, and in the family, the mother is the key,” Easton once said. “So the answer I came upon was simple. To make change, I needed to fund women: Individual women.”

So she began the Sumasil Foundation, which means “health and happiness” in the Chumash language. Since 1992, the organization has distributed approximately $8 million in scholarships to over 3,000 women in obtaining their higher education to foster independence by improving lives and career choices.

The First Peoples Fund (FPF) was started in 1995 in Rapid City, South Dakota, with a mission to support American Indian artists and culture bearers. The organization’s Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Awards are given annually in recognition of Native artists who are working to keep their cultures and values alive through the arts.

“I wanted the general public to be more aware of the incredible artistic diversity I saw among indigenous people all over this country. People think of Native art and they often just think of turquoise and silver and beading and that is about it,” Easton said in 2014. “I wanted to change that perception. I always had an appreciation for Native art, but there was nowhere to buy it and nowhere to see it.”

The First Peoples Fund has since contributed to the careers of nearly every major artist in Indian country, including rapper and writer Frank Waln, designer Bethany Yellowtail, photographer Matika Wilbur and musician Wade Fernandez.

“She spent her life journey selflessly giving to Native artists and culture bearers through the First Peoples Fund, the Sumasil Foundation and the Sundance Institute’s Native Program,” said FPF president Lori Pourier. “Though we are shaken by her loss, we are inspired every day by her vision to support Native artists at the individual and family level. The impact of her generosity continues to ripple across Turtle Island for generations to come.”

“Jennifer Easton was one of those rare individuals you may meet once in a lifetime,” said Alfred “Bud” Lane III, Vice Chair of the Siletz Tribe, 2010 Community Spirit Award recipient and FPF board of directors. “From small beginnings she nurtured a revolutionary movement in the world of Native arts and social Justice. Her kindness and generosity will always be remembered by those whose lives she touched. She leaves our world in much better shape than she found it. May the blessings be with you Jennifer.”

Robert Redford, president and founder of Sundance Institute, said, “Jennifer Easton enabled and championed much of our work with independent artists, both as a Sundance Institute Trustee and an early supporter. She was instrumental in supporting what has become a rich legacy of Native American filmmaking. Our community is saddened by her passing, but grateful for her many contributions.”

“My siblings and I didn’t know about a lot of her projects until we were older because she kept it to herself. She was just really humble and wanted to be anonymous,” said her daughter Heather Easton. “I couldn’t do in a hundred lifetimes what she did in one. We try to live our lives the way she would want us to, being kind, loving, accepting, peaceful and generous.”

Ms. Easton is survived by her three adult children, Heather, Ben and Emily, her brother, Allan Newell, and sister, Carol Newell, and her nine grandchildren, Bradley, Alex, Samantha, Ellis, Augustus, Tyrus, Julia, Gina and Addie. Services will be held on August 23, 2017, from 4-8 p.m. at the Bradshaw Celebration of Life Center in Stillwater, Minnesota.