Tending a generous fire

When Jennifer Nesahkluah held a fundraiser to heat Native homes, she had no idea that it would blossom into a fledgling nonprofit organization.

Nesahkluah, Kiowa-Apache, is the founder and director of the Heat Native America Fund. During a fundraiser held at Scott Community College in September 2007, she raised $1,400, which went toward the purchase of 41 woodstoves for families living on the Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River Sioux and Crow Creek reservations in South Dakota.

“The idea just fumbled into my mind,” she explained. But it was actually more than just a fumble, likely a calling from the distant past. While growing up in Anadarko, Okla., there were times the electricity was shut off, and on cold nights her family huddled together to stay warm.


The fundraiser was born out of a project she put together for her honors independent study. She received permission from the college to host a Native American cultural event, as she felt many students knew little, if anything, about Native culture.

“A lot of people didn’t know a whole lot about Native Americans, and some of them didn’t even know that we were still alive.”

She invited a Meskwaki Nation elder to speak on traditions, and showed the film “Spirit – the Seventh Fire.” Her idea to invite Native dancers to perform transitioned into a pow wow, and she sold Indian tacos to help raise funds.

“A lot of people didn’t know a whole lot about Native Americans, and some of them didn’t even know that we were still alive.” – Jennifer Nesahkluah

Once money was raised, she asked Richard Boyden, founder of the nonprofit Operation Morningstar, on how and where to purchase the woodstoves. He connected her with Randy Stiles, owner of Victorian Sales, a heating supply company based in Fenton, Mo.

Stiles tapped his connections in the heating industry, received additional donations and was able to purchase the stoves at a discounted price – all within a few weeks of the fundraiser. He paid for the shipping, and Boyden helped deliver the stoves.

“Jennifer is really a good person with a big heart,” Stiles said. “What she did was really impressive, given the short amount of time.”

Meanwhile, the University of Iowa junior has spent time reorganizing HNAF’s purpose and mission, and has her sights set on raising $3,000. They are currently accepting donations of winter clothing and shoes, kitchen items, books, school supplies and weatherization materials to help keep homes warm.

“I am really going into the organization thing as a greenhorn,” she said.

Half the cash donations will be used to purchase woodstoves, and the other half to pay for transportation of the goods.

“Optimistically speaking, being in our first year of operation, if all that HNAF can take out is only a few woodstoves without piping and 25 sacks of collected winter coats, hats and gloves, or even just the bags themselves, then we feel that HNAF would have fulfilled its core mission in having delivered, in some capacity, reservation aid before the winter season hits.”

She credits Alfred Bone Shirt, Rosebud Sioux and a founding member of the Dakota-Lakota-Nakota Human Rights Advocacy Coalition, for motivating her to take the one-time fundraiser to the next level.

Bone Shirt connected her with Eileen Shot With Two Arrows, director of Rosebud’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, to discuss the possibility of HNAF donating woodstoves to the most needy families.

Shot With Two Arrows said with the cost of propane and heating on the rise, many of Rosebud’s poorest go without power. LIHEAP provides assistance to more than 2,000 households on the reservation, and spends $300,000 each month. But, they are only able to offer the program six months out of the year.

“Many of the people just sit there without power.”

Last winter proved brutal for families without power or woodstoves. Storms knocked down power lines, leaving many without power for up to two weeks. She said LIHEAP has no goal in mind on the number of woodstoves needed, but the demand is high, and wood is a plentiful resource in the area.

“Even if they could find 500 (woodstoves), we would find homes for those.”

As of press time, Nesahkluah planned on heading out to Rosebud to meet and take photos of families receiving woodstoves and donations, and to gather personal testimonies. She will publish the photos and stories in future HNAF literature, so donors can see how funds are being distributed.

There are currently three board members, and her friends and family help with fundraisers held at diversity events and pow wows.

They sell Southwestern pottery, beaded hats, jewelry and key chains, along with unblessed sage, cedar and sweetgrass. They also sell Tanka Bars, a buffalo and cranberry energy bar made by an Oglala Lakota-owned company based in Pine Ridge, S.D.

Nesahkluah said the process of fully transitioning into a nonprofit will take time and training. This full-time student is also the mother of 5-year-old Preston, and is recovering from physical, mental, sexual and substance abuse.

She is majoring in Communication Studies and working on a certificate in Nonprofit Management, and was recently awarded the full James B. Morris Scholarship for minorities.

Instead of keeping her painful past in the dark, she is a motivational speaker; she shares her life experiences to inspire others to achieve greatness, and to foster her own healing.

She was on the receiving end of charitable organizations plenty of times. “This time I am on the other side and I am learning as I go along.”

HNAF’s mission is to work with like-minded individuals and entities to coordinate fundraisers, and to educate the public on contemporary issues affecting Native people living on reservations.

“When I think about the debilitating effects of the seemingly endless oppressions and near-genocidal poverty, I am tremendously compelled to do something about it, in whatever capacity.”

For information on HNAF, e-mail heatnativeamerica@yahoo.com.