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Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led nonprofit organization dedicated to building Indigenous power, announces a Bush Foundation award of $50 million.

“The purpose of this grant is to close the racial wealth gap,” said Nick Tilsen, Lakota, director and CEO of the collective. “This is the largest amount of money we’ve received from a single funder; it’s very unusual.”

The Bush Foundation, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, announced its creation in March of two community trust funds in the amount of $100 million to address wealth disparities in both the Native American and Black communities in the tri-state areas that includes Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota.

NDN Collective, based in Rapid City, South Dakota, was chosen to be a steward of funding for Native American communities; Nexus Community Partners, a nonprofit community development initiative based in Minneapolis was chosen as steward of $50 million in funds for the Black community.

The community trust funds are an example of a sea change in how U.S. philanthropes are awarding grants. Traditionally large charitable organizations such as the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Bush Foundation spend about 5 percent of their assets per year. This allows existing endowments to grow and increases the likelihood of long-term survival.

Recently, however, several organizations including the Bush Foundation announced that they would not only be greatly increasing their spending but would be financing the increase by taking on debt, highly unusual in the foundation world.

“The death of George Floyd, subsequent uprisings, the pandemic and the election have created a political moment for philanthropes to change their way of doing business,” Tilsen said. “They’ve decided they need to put more money on the street in order to close the wealth gap.”

NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen stands outside of the NDN Headquarters upon his release from Pennington County jail in Rapid City, South Dakota on July 6. (Photo by Arlo Iron Cloud via NDN Collective)

“Native Americans have about 8 cents of wealth for every dollar of a White household in this country,” said Eileen Briggs, Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, Bush Foundation grantmaking director.

The goal of the community trust funds is to address long term wealth disparities caused by historic racial injustice. Wealth predicts educational achievement, health and surviving through financial difficulties. Wealth, according to the Bush Foundation website, is one of the most critical determinants in life opportunities and outcomes in the U.S.

Uniquely, the community trust funds will go directly to individuals and families through the steward organizations.

NDN Collective will spend the next year designing the process and mechanism for deploying the money to families and individuals. “We will meet with our strategic partners as well as community, family and individuals,” said Gaby Strong, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, managing director of the NDN Collective Foundation. “We want to include cultural and spiritual leadership in addition to elected tribal officials in planning, giving and in determination of wealth.”

“We’re going to lean into the ways that Indigenous peoples organize themselves in their communities and extended families,” Tilsen said.

Of greatest importance to members of NDN Collective, is the Bush Foundation’s willingness to let them determine and design the process of deploying the funding.

NOV. 2021: Indigenous delegates with NDN Collective pose for a photo with White House climate advisor Gina McCarthy at COP26. (Photo courtesy of NDN Collective)

Although financial wealth is important, there are other aspects of wealth as determined by Indigenous peoples.

“There are spiritual, cultural, health and wellness aspects to wealth,” Strong said. “Our spiritual connection to our lands and our kinship to those lands is also wealth.”

An example of wealth that falls outside of capitalistic measures is Indigenous language.

“In capitalistic measures, our Indigenous languages might not be worth anything,” Tilsen said. “In terms of our Lakota ways, however, language is where the knowledge of our culture lives.”

Tilsen and others at NDN Collective don’t want the trust funds to be a regulated endeavor that prohibits access.

“The most innovative part of this opportunity is the Bush Foundation’s willingness to put the decision making power of how this money can be most beneficial directly into the hands of community members and practitioners,” Tilsen said. “Our theory of change is 100 percent Indigenous-led.”

Tilsen describes many charitable organizations’ cultures of giving through pre-determined models as based on White supremacist constructs and measures of wealth. “If you’re really interested in investing in Indigenous self-determination, you can’t have a whole bunch of restrictions on funding,” he said. “We don’t accept foundation money that doesn’t fit into our theory of change; we don’t believe in centering funders.”

NDN Collective was incorporated in 2018 and has put out more than $25 million in grants to over 500 Indigenous grantees across North America. Funds from the Bush Foundation will be deployed in about one year after the planning process is complete.

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