Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

RAPID CITY, South Dakota — Native artists and culture bearers received a multimillion-dollar boost Tuesday as First Peoples Fund and other Indigenous groups were tapped for investments from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

“I’m just deeply, deeply, deeply grateful for this gift,” said First Peoples Fund President and Oglala Lakota citizen Lori Pourier. “It really allows us the time to breathe and continue the important work in tribal communities.”

The donation to First Peoples Fund was one 286 grants totaling $2.7 billion to a wide array of organizations announced Tuesday by Scott in a blog post.

Other Native nonprofits receiving contributions included the Alaska Native Heritage Center, the American Indian College Fund, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, Decolonizing Wealth Project, IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, the NDN Collective, the PA’I Foundation and Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation.

"We are governed by a humbling belief that it would be better if disproportionate wealth were not concentrated in a small number of hands, and that the solutions are best designed and implemented by others," Scott said in the post. "People working to build power from within communities are the agents of change."

Pourier has been working for decades to bring positive change in Indian Country and knows first hand how difficult it is sometimes to find funding.

“I’ve been doing this work for more than 25 years and for the past 20 years or so only about one half of one percent of all philanthropic dollars has gone to Native causes and concerns,” she said. “And that has not changed in the last 20 years.”

But Pourier added that perhaps the large donation from Scott — which she called “transformational” — was an indication of change.

“We hope this is just the beginning of deeper investments in traditional activities like dance, storytelling and weaving which are the rock upon which our people are building our modern tribal communities and economies,” Pourier said.

As for Scott, she keeps a low profile.

Tlingit Community members in Klukwan, Alaska, march in 2015 in honor of Lani Hotch, a weaver and citizen of the Chilkat Indian Village in Haines, Alaska. Hotch was named a First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award honoree. “A truth that’s unknown to most Americans is that art and culture are and always have been a central force in tribal communities and economies,” said First Peoples Fund President Lori Pourier. (Photo courtesy of First Peoples Fund)
FILE - In this March 4, 2018, file photo, then-MacKenzie Bezos arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, Calif. Galvanized by the racial justice protests and the coronavirus pandemic, charitable giving in the United States reached a record $471 billion in 2020, according to a Giving USA report released Tuesday, June 15, 2021. MacKenzie Scott stormed the philanthropy world in 2020 with $5.7 billion in unrestricted donations to hundreds of charities. The seven- and eight-figure gifts were the largest many had ever received. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

Divorced from billionaire Jeff Bezos in 2019 and one of the world’s richest people, she gave away $6 billion last year and made scant comment. Most of her donations — including to First Peoples Fund — come with no restrictions. Other groups receiving donations included arts nonprofits and groups dedicated to fighting racial discrimination.

For Pourier, that means her fund can keep doing what it does best: strengthening Native communities through culture and arts.

Alfred Bud Lane III, chair of the Northwest Basketweavers Association and citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, praised Pourier’s organization.

“First Peoples Fund works to preserve and help protect ancient traditions that have gone on for thousands of years,” he said. “It helps artists by recognizing their work but also by assisting them in many different ways to keep those traditions going and keep them alive, not just for this generation but for those generations yet unborn. The work that they do in this area is vital.”

First Peoples Fund President and Oglala Lakota citizen Lori Pourier stands against a backdrop of Black Hills grasses. Her fund has received a multimillion-dollar grant from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. “We hope this is just the beginning of deeper investments in traditional activities like dance, storytelling and weaving which are the rock upon which our people are building our modern tribal communities and economies,” Pourier said. (Photo courtesy of First Peoples Fund)

First Peoples Fund makes direct grants to Native artists and culture bearers across the country and provides financial training to promote entrepreneurial initiatives and community development programs. The underlying goal is to help Native artists share their inspiration, wisdom, knowledge and gifts with their communities.

“It’s a very positive thing in our community how Native art and traditions and culture can bring a community together,” said birchbark canoe maker and Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa citizen Wayne Valliere. “And not only bring our community together but heal our community.”

And help them grow.

“A truth that’s unknown to most Americans is that art and culture are and always have been a central force in tribal communities and economies,” Pourier said. “This gift from Ms. Scott recognizes the effectiveness of our approach to homegrown economic development.”

Scott cited those efforts in her post about the contributions.

"Arts and cultural institutions can strengthen communities by transforming spaces, fostering empathy, reflecting community identity, advancing economic mobility, improving academic outcomes, lowering crime rates, and improving mental health," she wrote, "so we evaluated smaller arts organizations creating these benefits with artists and audiences from culturally rich regions and identity groups that donors often overlook."

With new resources, that work can expand.

“There’s a bunch of more people we can help and there’s a handful of communities we can deepen our work,” she said. “In Pine Ridge, we’ve been working with Lakota Funds and the Lakota Federal Credit Union for a very long time and we have the Rolling Rez arts bus (which takes artists and supplies into remote reservation communities) that’s gone some 37,000 miles and worked with over 1,000 artists over seven years. We’re really going to be able to do more of this good work and we’re pretty excited about it. I can’t believe what’s just happening.”

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