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Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Nick Tilsen set two lofty goals for his fledgling nonprofit: to become the country's largest, Indigenous-led nonprofit institution, and to fundamentally change the culture of U.S. philanthropy.

Today, after raising more than $57 million since 2018, he’s on his way toward reaching the first mark. The second mark? Still firmly in his sights.

“One of our big issues here at the NDN Collective is addressing white supremacy and systematic racism in the field of philanthropy,” said Tilsen, Olglala Lakota, from his organization’s base in this Black Hills city. “Money and decision-making power and resources need to be shifted out of these mostly white-led institutions and shifted into Indigenous and people of color-led institutions.”

The collective, whose motto for Native nations is, “Defend, Develop and Decolonize,” has gained the attention of major funders across the U.S. 

That status was reinforced last week when Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and the worlds’ richest person, announced that NDN would receive $12 million as one of the first 16 recipients of his $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund to combat climate change.

“I’ve spent the past several months learning from a group of incredibly smart people who’ve made it their life’s work to fight climate change and its impact on communities around the world,” said Bezos in an Instagram post when he announced the list of first recipients of his fund. “I’m inspired by what they’re doing, and excited to help them scale.”

Tilsen tipped his hat to Bezos but underscored the impact of front line activists.

In this June 19, 2019 file photo, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos during the JFK Space Summit at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. House lawmakers investigating the market dominance of Big Tech are asking Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to testify to address possible misleading statements by the company on its competition practices. In a letter to Bezos, leaders of the House Judiciary Committee are holding out the threat of a subpoena if he doesn't agree voluntarily to appear. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Nick Tilsen points to some construction work at the Thunder Valley Development Corporation site on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 2018. Tilsen left Thunder Valley to launch the NDN Collective where he works in part to disrupt the field of philanthropy and make it more receptive to Indigeouous-led organizations. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

“When the wealthiest man in the world makes a commitment to invest $10 billion into mitigating and stopping climate change, it’s a response to a movement,” he said. “It’s a response to people who for a long time have been in the streets and been fighting the fossil fuel industry, fighting the things that cause climate change and sometimes fighting the practices at his own company, at Amazon. … We know that the real heroes in this work are the organizers and activists who have devoted their lives to raising global consciousness about climate justice issues.”

And while acknowledging he’s honored NDN was chosen for such a large donation, Tilsen stressed that principles could not take a back seat.

“We as an organization recognize that it's problematic when we accept resources from folks that are the wealthiest individuals in the world,” he said. “Most of the folks that have gotten those resources have gotten those resources based on an exploitation of a person, place or thing. A lot of times, at the cost of human rights and workers’ conditions. … We will not tiptoe around the fact that Amazon and Jeff Bezos in particular have been rightfully criticized for unjust working conditions, corporate bailouts, and for directly contributing to climate change in the world.”

A request for comment from a spokesperson for the Bezos Earth Fund was not immediately returned.

Tilsen launched the NDN Collective after successfully guiding the Thunder Valley Development Corporation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Thunder Valley blossomed by focusing on ancestral values and adherence to a credo of self reliance and self determination.

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Tilsen wanted to spread the approach beyond his Oglala Lakota home nation and take it to Indian Country across the United States.

He said he’s excited for what the Earth Fund resources can bring.

“It’s going to have a pretty big impact throughout Indian Country, for sure,” he said.

NDN has earmarked $9 million of the $12 million Bezos donation to be distributed in $100,000 chunks under NDN’s Self Determination Grant program. 

The money will go to “community-led and Indigenous-led efforts that are addressing climate and sustainable solutions to address climate change in their community,” said Tilsen, “along with defending their lands against the fossil fuel industry.”

He said this approach stems directly from NDN’s core philosophy.

Pictured: Lakota youth in downtown Rapid City on July 2, the day before Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore.
Pictured: A Lakota woman protests in her ancestral lands, the Black Hills, in the lead up to Trump's visit. July 3, 2020.

“When Indigenous people are invested into their self determination — to do the work of defend, develop and decolonize — it doesn’t just transform the world for Indigenous communities, it transforms and builds a better world, a more just and equitable world, for all people on Mother Earth,” he said.

The rest of the funding will go to support NDN’s own programming, including its Landback initiative, an idea Tilsen said is baked deeply into the heart of Indian Country.

“Landback is a movement that has lived in the hearts and minds of our people for generations, ever since our land was taken from us,” said Tilsen. “Landback is a movement to return Indigenous land back into Indigenous hands and in the process of doing that, revitalize our language, our ceremonies, our food systems, our lifeways.

“The root word of ‘reparations’ is ‘repair.’ When we think about what repair means for Indigenous people, it means land back. There is no repair with Indigenous people in this nation, at the level that it needs to be, unless we start returning Indigenous lands back into Indigenous hands.”

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Stewart Huntington is a reporter based in Minneapolis. He spent the past five years covering western South Dakota Indian Country for KOTA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Rapid City, S.D.

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