Native Arts & Culture Foundation supports Indian country

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – When grant making begins in 2010, the newly formed Native Arts & Cultures Foundation will become the only philanthropic organization to exclusively support American Indian, indigenous Alaskan and Native Hawaiian arts and culture in the United States. The goal is to stimulate tribal philanthropic investment in the field by directly supporting artists and arts organizations.

“The current economic environment presents challenges, so we’re projecting conservatively that in the first five years beginning in 2010, we’ll be able to support $4 million in grants and program services,” said Tara Lulani Arquette, the CEO of the Portland, Ore.-based foundation.

This year is about building operational infrastructure, fundraising systems and grant making criteria, said Arquette, a Native Hawaiian. “The arts have always played a very significant role in Native cultures. What connects one generation to the next is often communicated through the arts, and the NACF will be a powerful instrument for the continuance of Native cultures.”

According to a press release, the NACF’s initial endowment and operating funds come from a $10 million grant from the Ford Foundation. The Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians near Sacramento, Calif. committed an additional $1.5 million, and has announced a matching grant of $1.5 million more.

Betsy Theobald Richards, the first American Indian program officer (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) at the Ford Foundation, has been involved since before she joined Ford in 2003. “In the 1990s, there was a visioning session in the arts to talk about Native arts and culture in the 21st century. One idea was an arts endowment.”

The Ford Foundation funded a feasibility study that looked at building a Native arts and culture foundation. A leadership circle brainstormed the structure for such an organization. Several of the NACF’s board members participated in this leadership circle.

“Ford feels the NACF will benefit not only American Indians, Native Hawaiians and indigenous Alaskans, but the cultural landscape of the United States as a whole,” Richards said. “This country needs this wonderful way of supporting our indigenous cultures.”

One of the NACF board members is poet and writer Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation. “This idea goes back to the grandparents and great grandparents of people in Indian country. Many had this vision of a national Native arts and culture organization. I got involved because I’m an artist, playwright, actor and musician.”

Other NACF board members include chair Walter Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, an attorney, tribal judge and former senior attorney with the Native American Rights Fund; Elizabeth Woody, board secretary; Navajo/Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama, a poet, writer, visual artist and the former director and developer of the Indigenous Leadership Program at the nonprofit organization Ecotrust; Marshall McKay, a tribal chairman of the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians; and Letitia Chambers, a retired senior executive and former U.S. representative to the United Nations General Assembly.

Harjo said many have responded to the news that the NACF will soon be supporting American Indian arts and cultures. “Already people want to know how to apply. But we’re still in the formation stages. It’s like building a huge building. You need lots of planning and deliberation to make sure that the organization is set into place in the right way. We’re being very respectful to be useful for Indian country to rejuvenate and regenerate arts and culture. It’s a long process to build an edifice.”

Arquette agrees, especially with the idea that NACF is complementing, connecting, supporting and partnering with other organizations and their constituencies to provide a funding source in perpetuity for both current artists and future generations.

She points to the strong cohort of Indian leaders and friends, and is looking forward to reaching out to all communities to implement the NACF’s programs and strategies. She’ll be using this next year to collaborate with other organizations, tribal entities, academic communities, museums, foundations, etc. in building a strong base for the NACF.

Part of the strategy is locating the NACF in Portland. “Portland is a major, thriving Native arts community, and a gateway for northwestern Native arts,” she said. “It’s centrally located to Alaska, Hawaii and the rest of the U.S., and Washington, California and Oregon have the most federally recognized Native tribes of any other U.S. geographic area.”

But more important than geography, Arquette focuses on what she calls a truly indigenous people’s value – that “we” is greater than “I.” “The well-being of the broader community takes precedence, and is more important than any individual.

The NACF will provide strong opportunities to emphasize the commonality of the shared values of Native communities, as expressed through arts and culture. We’re very excited that this will encourage non-Natives, too. The arts are a connector, and inspire people to behave differently. Through that effort, we also recognize our sovereignty as Native peoples.”