Has anyone of James Wolfensohn's prominence ever visited Pine Ridge and
made a point of saying the United States must honor its trust obligations
and tribal treaty rights?
That is what happened at the end of March, when the World Bank president
led a delegation that launched the international lending institution's
Global Fund for Indigenous Peoples. Wolfensohn also timed his visit to
coincide with a capital campaign for the Pine Ridge-based Lakota Fund.
We've seen more than one bold mission to Pine Ridge deliver little besides
rhetoric. Between Wolfensohn, the grassroots lending program at Lakota
Fund, Pine Ridge President Cecelia Fire Thunder and composer Peter Buffet,
this delegation was different. Wolfensohn declared that difference by
insisting the United States honor its historic commitments to Native
As an Australian, Wolfensohn knows something about the abandonment of
indigenous rights. In one of his last messages as the leader of the world's
premier international development banks, he called on his adoptive country
to set a better example. He even said he was "startled" to find the same
neglect for indigenous people in America that he is familiar with in far
less wealthy lands.
But he did so much more than charge us with changing our ways as a nation.
He vowed to maintain his own campaign for positive change by continuing to
work for indigenous development after he retires from the World Bank later
this year. And he will leave behind him at World Bank a Global Fund for
Indigenous Peoples, providing startup funds for Native-controlled
development projects around the world.
It's a new approach at World Bank in that, one: indigenous communities
propose their grassroots project and implement them if they are funded; and
two: national governments that are World Bank shareholders cannot veto them
as World Bank programs. This is a breakthrough on which Native people
everywhere can build with careful, considered, practical programs in the
field that will produce real change on the ground where they live.
The new World Bank fund would have been unthinkable without Wolfensohn's
active backing. It was my inspiration to approach him with the idea that
became the Global Fund for Indigenous Peoples several years ago, and it has
been my privilege to work with him since on putting the idea into action.
So I know firsthand that his dedication, and that of his staff and the
indigenous development team at World Bank, has been indispensable.
Has any modern political leader at Pine Ridge gotten off to such a
difference-making start as Cecilia Fire Thunder? This dynamic tribal
chairman hosted our group and heard Wolfensohn say that he doesn't see
poverty in one of the nation's economically poorest locales - he saw
This remark might have been suspect as boosterism a few years ago. But how
true it rings now - and that is in part a compliment to Fire Thunder; for
on her watch, the council last year installed a Uniform Commercial Code to
govern reservation business practices. By creating a legally enforceable
"comfort zone" for investors, the UCC has helped to bring about an
impressive surge in economic investments to go with many other
reform-minded initiatives of the Oglala Nation's first female head of
This brings me to my final question on this great occasion for change at
Pine Ridge: Has any on-reservation private sector economic development
organization ever showed the staying power of the Lakota Fund?
The Lakota Fund began as a grassroots initiative of the Oglala people that
was taken on as a consuming project by First Nations Development Institute
some 19 years ago. But it has been independent for the past 12 years, and
in that time it has made the transition from our starting point of
culturally-appropriate micro-lending to full-fledged small business
Elsie Meeks, the Lakota Fund's highly accomplished executive director,
dared to say the Lakota Fund's new $10 million capital campaign, unveiled
during Wolfensohn's visit to Pine Ridge, probably won't be enough capital
to meet the demand for small business development lending on Pine Ridge. If
one looks beyond the present poverty to the potential for development in
the skills and desires of the Oglala membership, as we always have and as
Wolfensohn emphasized again, there is no doubt that Elsie Meeks is right.
It's a changing world when we can say $10 million won't be enough and know
it's so, but that is the change we've envisioned from the earliest days of
the Lakota Fund.
Finally - a word on culture. For reasons we've long elaborated at First
Nations and never had any reason to doubt, economic development in Native
communities springs from Native culture. Peter Buffet joined Wolfensohn,
Fire Thunder, Meeks and me in Pine Ridge. As the son of Warren Buffet, one
of history's most successful investors, Peter knows his way around a
financial pro forma. But music is his calling, and at Pine Ridge he spoke
for culture - Native culture.
For all the important emphasis on raising money and investing it, Peter
Buffet reminded us that culture is not only our past - it is our only
confident way forward in the here and now.
Rebecca Adamson is the president of First Nations Development Institute and
a columnist for Indian Country Today.