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Tiwahe Foundation embodies cultural aspects of giving

Micro-grants have found a special place in Minnesota’s American Indian community as the 13-year-old American Indian Family Empowerment Program, organized as an arm of the Grotto Foundation, begins operations as an independent nonprofit American Indian grant-making organization called the Tiwahe Foundation.

Tiwahe means family in the Dakota language, explained Levon Lee, who is serving as temporary program administrator, thanks to the generosity of the Grotto Foundation. The goals of the foundation are “to support people in attaining their educational goals, developing economic self-sufficiency, and connecting to their culture,” Lee said.

As the new foundation gets underway, one of its most pressing goals is to put together a $6 million endowment over the next five years. “The foundation continues to make grants at the same time as we are raising endowment funds. The endowment is intended to sustain what we’re doing,” said Lee, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

The foundation provides micro-grants for activities such as starting a small business, finishing schooling, or participating in an educational event. “Our grants are not large, $500 to $2,500, but they come at a time when an individual needs funds the most, such as when a student needs child care funds in order to complete his or her last semester of college,” explained Lee.

Eighty percent of former grantees are active participants in their communities. While the fund does not keep track of its grant recipients in any formal way, the Native community in the Twin Cities area is small so the foundation learns informally what people are doing. “And some come back to us when they want to learn their Native language or pursue their education,” said Lee.

The grant-making process at the Tiwahe Foundation begins with an application. Applicants must be at least 18, but families may apply on behalf of a younger child – for example, when a junior high school student has an opportunity to go on a trip to another country but the family cannot afford to pay for it. “Our grant beneficiaries range in age from 14 to 70 years.

“Funding applications are evaluated by an advisory board (now our nine-member board of directors) made up of people who are fully invested in the community. The board reviews the applications to see if they meet our criteria. If an application is not funded, we encourage people to apply again the next year,” Lee said. Currently, the foundation’s major supporters are the Marbrook, Grotto and Westcliff foundations, but Tiwahe is looking locally for other foundation support and for private donors as part of its endowment campaign. “With our endowment effort, we hope to raise additional funds to support more people,” she said.

The Tiwahe Foundation is run by community members. “We want to retain the cultural underpinnings of how we give in indigenous communities, the cultural aspects of giving. When we give, it’s not just about providing funds; we ask how the applicant and the project fit into the cultural fabric of our community. Our kinship system comes into play. We look at how this project will be good for the community. We look to the future; everything we do is related to our creation story and sacred teachings.”

Some of the people the foundation has funded include elders who are volunteers in the community. “They apply for grants to meet their transportation needs, to buy eyeglasses so they can continue to volunteer, or, in one case, to fund a giveaway to acknowledge others in the community,” explained Lee.

“Small business funding has included a grant to help someone start a landscaping and snow removal service for nonprofits and to provide work for hard-to-employ Natives. That business is about six years old. Another went to a woman who is doing massage therapy, and a third to start a floral business to provide flowers for funerals and other needs.”

As an exemplar of Native American grant-making institutions, “The Tiwahe Foundation really allows the community to work toward self-determination on our own terms,” said Lee.

Currently, the foundation serves the Twin Cities area and the seven counties of the metropolitan area, and hopes to expand and include all of greater Minnesota.