By one name or another, Cherokee people have occupied their hills for about
as long as the hills themselves have been here. As a matter of record,
people have drawn all the resources of life from this environment for more
than 10,000 years.
The hills are now called the southern Appalachians, the region is western
North Carolina, and their first inhabitants are known as the Eastern Band
of Cherokee Indians. And for the next 30 years anyway, resource management
will also be designated anew - as the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.
Under terms of the tribal-state gaming compact that established the
foundation, the band's council will fund the organization with varying
revenues from its gaming operation.
The foundation's ultimate mission is to enhance Eastern Cherokee well-being
and strengthen the region. But in the clarifying words of Susan Jenkins,
the foundation's first executive director, the mission statement is simply
the answer to a prior question: "How can we use these resources to build
The answer is to encourage, over 30 years, a sustainable prosperity based
on culture and the environment - a prosperity that will be sustained in
large part by its viability within Cherokee culture and by the environment.
Cherokee Preservation Foundation, then, is a new way of creating conditions
for the reinvestment of gaming revenue back into the community. The
pathfinders here were successive councils of the Eastern Cherokee, current
Chief Leon Jones, and former North Carolina governor James Hunt. Each could
see that the future security and well-being of western North Carolina would
be best served by a Native 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, separate from
the tribe, that would reinvest gaming revenue in a manner befitting the
Not every tribal and state government has arrived at this model, as we're
seeing to varying degrees in Michigan, New York and California. And of
course, windfall monetary gains from other sources may fare no better as
Native community reinvestment, as we're seeing with some of the
environmental settlement funds distributed in Alaska Native communities.
Time will tell how well these tribes and communities will be at building
these resources - though let us note that community reinvestment does
happen in different ways.
But in western North Carolina, they were taking no chances. Instead of
demanding an ever-higher percentage of gaming proceeds at the state
capitol, as many state governments have, the North Carolina government
sought to encourage tribal control of community reinvestment through a
gaming compact. Instead of seeking per capita distributions, the tribal
leadership sought to control a tribal resource for the good of generations
unborn. By November of 2000, a compact had been signed establishing the
That caused the band to move from concept to start-up. Planning, nonprofit
tax clearances and organizational documents took up the next year. Then in
January 2002, the Eastern Cherokee hired Susan Jenkins to get the Cherokee
Preservation Foundation off the ground.
Be all that as it may, Jenkins, formerly of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation,
where she worked with various projects, including Native initiatives, knew
what to expect in terms of workload. With the foundation sitting on a cache
of the community's money, she also knew what had to be done. "I just felt
we needed to get the money out. ... The community saw the money was getting
out the door."
The foundation issued applications in May 2002, and fielded more than 100
proposals by Aug. 1 of that year. In its first funding cycle alone the
foundation delivered 54 grants totaling $2.1 million. The high response
rate of applicants continued into the foundation's second grant cycle, in
2003, spurring staff growth to include a finance officer, grants manager
and project officer. An eagerly awaited Web site is up and running at
Grants are made only in the western North Carolina counties in and around
the band's land. The grant categories - cultural preservation,
environmental preservation, economic development and employment
opportunities - reflect the interaction of cultural, environmental and
economic priorities that characterize so many Native communities.
Though the foundation makes grants to non-Native organizations, it screens
every proposal with three questions: is it within one of their grantmaking
categories, does it further the foundation's overall goals, and do those
who will be in charge of a project have good relationships in place with
the Cherokee community? Foundation staff have a pretty good sense of the
latter after a phone call or two, if not before. They can also easily drive
out for a site visit. Lack of these relationships is the primary reason the
foundation didn't make more grants in its initial round, Jenkins said. But
in this way, without being exclusive, the foundation keeps its emphasis on
Cherokee preservation, on the Cherokee people but within a larger community
Jenkins added, "We don't want a project being done for them or to them, but
An example of a collaborative grant favored by the foundation would be one
for $10,000 to the Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center. At first
glance, Scottish tartans and their history might not appear to be deeply
embedded in Cherokee culture. But the grant is to upgrade and expand the
museum's Cherokee exhibit, and the museum is working closely with the
tribe's well-respected Cherokee museum. Similarly, an environmental grant
for $19,500 to Land Trust for the Little Tennessee River will help to
restore cane breaks along the riverbank; cane is critical to Cherokee
basket weaving traditions, and none is currently available in the area.
This is not to say there aren't a good number of grants awarded that are
directly beneficial to the tribal community. For instance, $20,000 was
provided to a high school in the region that will create a Native-specific
educational initiative there.
Still and all, no amount of connecting the dots between project attributes
and grant guidelines will do justice to the foundation's regard for the
regional community. Proposals must meet other, perhaps equally important
criteria as they compete for a grant. Foundation materials call these
criteria fundamentals, but by any name they amount to a philosophy that has
gained currency in foundation circles in recent decades. As the foundation
phrases it: "It is our firm belief that renewal can take place when people
who care about their community join together to find workable solutions -
when we collaborate with others to enhance resources, cultivate leadership
skills and focus on the next generation."
In keeping with this belief, the Cherokee Preservation Foundation urges
grant applicants to form their projects around the fundamentals of public
dialogue and involvement, collaborative partnerships, leadership
development, and long-term well-being.
Clearly this synthesis of fundamentals owes something to Jenkins'
background at Kellogg, even as it principally accommodates the wellsprings
of Cherokee culture.
Editor's note: This column by Indian Country Today's Washington
correspondent Jerry Reynolds first ran in the Summer 2003 edition of Native
Americas, the quarterly policy journal of hemispheric indigenous issues
published by First Nations Development Institute.