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Profiles in trust: Rebecca Adamson and First Nations Development Institute

WASHINGTON - When the trust funds litigation in Cobell and other cases are finally resolved, people like lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, her fellow plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, a cast of Native American Rights Fund attorneys and other members of the legal team, as well as an honor roll of others will no doubt all wear every feather Native culture can bestow.

Congressional intervention would emphasize the mediation of adversarial differences that have dominated the case so far. By its very nature, and no doubt because of its historic importance, the hearing drew out a distilled record of essential information in the case as the ground beneath it begins to shift. This shift and the information it throws out, the new perspective it generates, leaves some reputations on higher public ground in this regard, and some not.

This multi-part series looks at a few who have found higher ground, followed by a look at one whose reputation as a former Interior Secretary may be settling into lower ground, at least on the subject of the trust funds: Bruce Babbitt.

Rebecca Adamson: Always a forerunner

After its leading role in the early years, it would be curious now to find First Nations Development Institute on the sidelines of trust funds reform - if that were not always the way at First Nations.

Always a forerunner on the toughest issues, First Nations has most always moved on by the time a larger public catches up to the issue. For almost 25 years, the Fredericksburg, Va., non-profit has specialized in hearing the issues and catching hold of them within Indian communities. First Nations then goes to work with a broad cross-section of allies, raising these issues in a manner that the communities can approve and the various allies can grasp and get behind.

Once the issue has been safely "inherited," so to speak, by a community-based institution, First Nations typically mines another issue from Indian communities and embarks with them on another long process of reform.

This is just the way non-profit organizations are supposed to work. In theory at least, foundations fund them on something of a contingency basis, for a period of years. If the non-profit produces results on its founding issue, it is expected to stay with it at least until a turning point is in sight, but eventually to move on in a process of institutional growth, leaving another non-profit in its place to transition through the turning point and beyond.

In practice, of course, many a non-profit organization has made a career of one issue with a few narrow variations, losing momentum and finally bogging down in one way or another, but always finding a way to bring in funding.

First Nations is the antidote to all that. From its core mission of mobilizing culturally viable economic development based on Indian control of their own assets, First Nations has helped to bring one issue after another to a point of mature engagement within Indian communities - and moved on, leaving behind either an institution or the capacities to deal with it into the future. A partial list would include the now-independent Lakota Fund and Indian Land Working Group, the Community Reinvestment Act, the Native Community Development Financial Institutions shop of the national CDFI Fund, the Oweesta Conference technical assistance seminars (Oweesta is the Mohawk word for money), First Nations Oweesta Corporation, and the Wisdom of the Giveaway Conference series with its offspring of Native philanthropic initiatives.

Trust funds reform was among the first issues surfaced by First Nations, almost 20 years ago. But whereas First Nations now is an economic development institute averaging 20-plus employees in recent years, back then the staff was a handful under the direction of its founder and president, Rebecca Adamson. The organization was ready to emerge from its formative years when Adamson seized upon trust funds reform.

Other tribes, notably the Red Lake Band in Minnesota, had already begun to agitate for an accounting of their trust accounts, and other individuals were working the issue at the grassroots level. But it was Adamson who forged a link between tribal assets and the reform of trust funds management. She commissioned a private sector assessment of the trust accounts that provided statistical traction for reform. Through investment workshops around Indian country, First Nations formed an alliance with the Saginaw Chippewa in Michigan and other key allies in an attempt to put the tribe in control of a trust funds judgment award. With the passage of a reform law in Congress, tribes had an option to the BIA's standard per capita distribution of funds.

On that basis, First Nations took a leading role in the passage of another law, the 1994 Indian Trust Management Reform Act, that enlarged the right of tribes to manage their own trust benefits.

But Adamson was also out front in dampening enthusiasm for the 1994 reform law. She said at the time that while it had taken a more-than-10-year process to pass the law, it might take that long again to implement it due to the tortured state of the trust accounts after almost a century in federal keeping. Those words have proved prophetic.

First Nations has played a limited role in trust funds management reform since then. Regular reporting on the process and occasional testimony before Congress have been the sum of its ongoing public role; in a more behind-the-scenes role, it commissioned evidentiary files that contributed to the comprehensive accounting now favored in Congress.

In the meantime, of course, it has moved on to other vital issues in Indian country, most recently Native control of their own food systems.