Native groups honored as ‘American Cultural Treasures’

At the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, Dustin Newman (Unangax/Deg Hit’an) builds an Aleutian style kayak known as igyax. (Photo Credit: Mike Conti, courtesy of Alaska Native Heritage Center)

Joaqlin Estus

‘What better gift is there than the gift of healing’

By Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Before COVID-19, arts and cultural organizations for people of color were already in a tough spot made worse when visitor numbers to their facilities plummeted.

So, a Ford Foundation program granting money and recognition to 20 such organizations is particularly welcome.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, Alaska, and the Institute of American Indian Art Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, are two of 20 Black, Latinx, Asian and Indigenous arts organizations the Ford Foundation has named American Cultural Treasures. 

The designation comes with multi-year grants from $1 to 6 million and technical assistance services valued at $100,000. The grants are from a fund of $156 million donated by 16 foundations and donors, including the Ford Foundation.

A beading class held as part of a day of healing over Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Feb. 1, 2020)
The Alaska Native Heritage Center hosts community activities such as this beading class offered during a day of healing for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, Feb. 1 2020).

See: Striving to make Indigenous women, girls feel safe in Alaska

The center’s Executive Director Emily Edenshaw, Yup’ik and Inupiaq, said it "really is an honor to be part of this cohort (of grant recipients) and to receive this gift.”

She said the grant is particularly important because “historically speaking, Indigenous communities have received less than one percent of philanthropic dollars nationwide.” She said the bold and visionary leadership of the Ford Foundation and other funders, “allows us to have a seat at the table. That's important. And that matters. Because what we have to say the world needs to hear.”

Chris “Junior” Sumdum (Tlingit) demonstrates the one-arm reach, which was traditionally used for upper body strength (Photo by Mike Conti, courtesy of Alaska Native Heritage Center)
Chris “Junior” Sumdum (Tlingit) demonstrates the one-arm reach, which was traditionally used for upper body strength (Photo by Mike Conti, courtesy of Alaska Native Heritage Center)

Ford Foundation Program Officer Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Mapuche Nation of Chile, said the cultural treasures program is an initiative to acknowledge and honor the diversity of artistic expression and excellence in the United States.

She said the foundation launched the effort because the pandemic presents an existential threat to nonprofit organizations and arts institutions across the country. 

"Economists and fundraising experts predict that the drop in charitable giving will likely be more significant than that of the Great Recession in 2008, and recovery will likely take longer.

“Arts and culture organizations play an essential role in our communities,” Aranda-Alvarado continued, “and without intensified support many organizations may be forced to close for good. This is especially true for organizations led by and serving communities of color that have already been historically underfunded.

She cited a 2015 report on diversity in the arts by the University of Maryland DeVos Institute of Arts Management that said the top 20 mainstream organizations have a median budget of $61 million, compared to $3.8 million for the top 20 organizations of color. 

"A difference of 16 times in median budget size is a glaring illustration of this disparity in terms of our commitment to Indigenous American groups,” Aranda-Alvarado said.

In a prepared statement, the Ford Foundation said the organizations designated as national treasures were selected based on criteria including national or international recognition for quality, for upholding culture and traditions in communities of color, for a legacy of leadership in training, and as a hub for allied organizations.

An Alaska Native Heritage Center  dance group demonstrates a Yup’ik dance. (Photo by Tatiana Ticknor, courtesy of Alaska Native Heritage Center)
An Alaska Native Heritage Center dance group demonstrates a Yup’ik dance. (Photo by Tatiana Ticknor, courtesy of Alaska Native Heritage Center)

Edenshaw said COVID-19 tested the center’s resilience and agility. She praised staff and partners for bringing strength. “We knew that we were not in this alone,” she said. “We knew that we had partners that we could lean on. We also knew that we could lean on our Native values.”

She expressed appreciation to the Parks Foundation, and Anchorage Museum. She highlighted the Rasmusen Foundation and its CEO Diane Kaplan for fostering the center’s relationship with the Ford Foundation.

The Ford Foundation said the center demonstrated its agility in responding to the pandemic. It “quickly pivoted to online and virtual programming, such as storytelling, cooking classes, and art classes. ANHC also created cultural boxes for K-12 students across the country.”

Edenshaw said “this gift (of recognition and funding) really not only helps us become more whole but it helps us heal from racism and ongoing colonialism and these injustices that are prevalent in all aspects of our life. And so what better gift is there than the gift of healing.”

Patsy Phillips, Cherokee, is director of another grant recipient, the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, which issued a statement on the museum’s website. She said “MoCNA is honored to receive this national recognition and award, and to be included in the twenty BIPOC organizations selected.

“I have had relationships with program officers of the Ford Foundation my entire career and they have always been supportive of the Indigenous art organizations I have worked with over the past 25 years, including Atlatl, Inc., the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.

Museum exhibits at the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The museum boasts 9,000 works of art created since 1961 (Photo by Jason S. Ordaz, courtesy of IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts)

“Museum staff is excited to join this cohort of important BIPOC organizations and, through this support, look forward to finding new and different ways to advance contemporary Native arts and cultures,” Phillips said.

The museum is the nation’s only museum for exhibiting, collecting, and interpreting the most progressive work of contemporary Native artists, says its website. It boasts 9,000 artworks created since 1962.

The museum did not respond to inquiries for this article.

Donors include the Ford Foundation, the Abrams Foundation, Alice Walton Foundation. Bloomberg Philanthropies Tom and Lisa Blumenthal, and Barbara and Amos Hostetter.

Other grant recipients include the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York, Project Row houses in Houston, the American National Museum in Michigan and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

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Updated to add photo of Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.

Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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