Indigenous Perspectives on Equity in Philanthropy

An Online Conversation

Grantmakers in the Arts has been exploring the topic of equity in arts and culture philanthropy for more than a year, through Thought Leader Forums and conference sessions, as well as in this publication. What I observed missing from the conversations on equity was an informed perspective on the ways that Native experiences and worldviews are markedly different from non-white or non-European communities or groups. The idea of sovereignty has been generally absent from these conversations, as well as a recognition of the range of cultural differences among the Indigenous Peoples across the continent, Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing.

We invited three writers to seed an online discussion on this topic in the fall of 2012:

  • Justin Huenemann, program officer, Northwest Area Foundation
  • Pamela Kingfisher, principal, Shining Waters Consulting; board member, CERF+
  • Tia Oros Peters, executive director, Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development

The online discussion continues at, and additional comments have been added since this article went to press. What follows are the postings of the writers, lightly edited for this publication.

Native Americans: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Depending on what weather vane one is observing, the field of philanthropy is either making important strides within communities of color and identity-based philanthropy or it continues to crawl with limited understanding. Whatever your outlook, for Native Americans, the reality is that total foundation giving has steadily declined as a share of total foundation giving since 2000. In 2009, one-third of 1 percent of total US foundation giving was directed toward Native American issues and causes.1 At first glance, this number may appear to be a typo. I assure you it is not.

This means that Native peoples, cultures, issues, and opportunities are, for the most part, not a part of the philanthropic consciousness in this country. Therefore, it is difficult to participate in a meaningful dialogue and critique regarding equity in philanthropy when, in fact, Native Americans are barely an afterthought. In 2009, 1,400 foundations were surveyed by the Foundation Center regarding their giving to Native causes and people. Incredibly, 1,149 of these foundations gave zero grants to Native causes and people.

This country and its wealth holders have worked extremely hard to erase from our national collective consciousness how their wealth has been amassed. Be clear, it is not by accident that these philanthropic facts and figures are present today and that Native people and issues are largely missing from the narratives of most US foundations. As long as US foundations support platforms absent of any acknowledgment of the Indigenous people of this country, advancing equity in philanthropy will be incomplete.

So how do we become a part of the consciousness and narrative? A first step requires institutional willingness by foundations to even desire to engage in a process of understanding and relationship building with Native peoples and their issues. Not surprisingly, what one will find through this process are rewarding experiences, enhanced learning, great people, and opportunities that mirror programmatic interests of US foundations.

Equity or Culture Clash?

Native Americans are still at the bottom of the heap in regards to the percentage of funding received from mainstream foundations, as well as in our health, economic, and social statistics. Unless Victoria’s Secret puts us on the runway, we are generally the forgotten and unseen sectors of society. But there are some very urgent reasons for this country to begin to respect and trust the deep knowledge of Native peoples and to recognize our great potential for inspired creative solutions and begin to reward our innovation, risk taking, and building of new models for expression.

Fundraising from mainstream donors and foundations can be a challenge that necessitates patience and creative strategies to overcome the “clash of cultures” just to gain an opportunity to discuss the Native concepts and cultural values that are imbedded in our communities. We have the addition of the Margaret Cargill funds and the new Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, but other than that it is the usual suspects who fund or care to understand Native arts and cultures — the diversity, the complexity, the depth and breadth of “art” embedded in our cultural DNA.

Just getting through the barriers of online applications with restrictive gates at every turn is very frustrating and time consuming. In a recent grant review committee I participated in, the only two Native American applications were shoved to the bottom because they “obviously” didn’t know how to write a good proposal. I argued — to no avail — that their community-organizing strategies were brilliantly fit to their cultural community.

Equity comes into play when informed funders enable Native American cultural organizations and artists to set their own cultural agendas, build infrastructures rooted in Native American values, and deepen their networks and connections in their own ways. Visual sovereignty will come through unbridled support of artistic vision that does not hold us down in the “Indian Ghetto” or keep us making stereotypical artworks of “Indian Heaven” and that allows us to move into the future with you, as equals, as visionary leaders and contemporary artists and cultural advocates.

Diversity Is Knowledge: Cultural Assets from our Collective Medicine Bundle

There is no word for art in our Native languages. Our more holistic view of the arts connects us to our ancestors and grounds our moral compasses as human beings. We see “living in beauty” as inextricably intertwined with community building, spirituality and religion, land and natural resources, health, intergenerational learning, economic development, cultural continuity, and other important aspects of individual and community life. Art for art’s sake does not exist in our communities. Art is sovereignty — art is survival.

Understanding and embracing this Native worldview could inspire the broader arts field’s explorations of issues such as the artist’s role in community building, the relationship between cultural arts and the general public, and bridging the increasingly uncomfortable distinction between fine art and community or cultural arts. Native Americans’ more holistic approach to arts and culture has the powerful potential to transform these discussions and, hopefully, the way that art is practiced, viewed, and supported in America. This leap of thought requires an open mind and open seats on the most powerful foundation boards.

So, how do we deepen this discussion in the broader field of arts philanthropy and philanthropy in general? Is it our responsibility as Native arts advocates and allies to initiate these discussions by stepping across the chasm to engage donors and policymakers to see us as living cultures thriving in today’s world? How do we share the most marginalized cultural “pearls of wisdom” with powerful decisionmakers in our field? Where are the openings and opportunities for sharing our worldviews and artistic sovereignty?

A Space That You Create

Let me preface my comments by saying that as an individual of mixed heritage, I cross back and forth between the Indigenous and white worlds on a daily basis. I am very much aware that this perspective can sometimes weaken and sometimes strengthen the validity of my observations.

The discussion of equity in philanthropy tends to frame the topic within a universe of quantifiable data. This not a bad thing in itself. The numbers don’t lie, but they can have a tendency to gossip, and because they are numbers — and we all give numbers a lot of credibility, sometimes too much — they can shine a light on one facet of a complex topic to the exclusion of others.

Here’s one place to start. The idea of grouping Indigenous people in the US into the broad category of “Native Americans” reflects a colonial and Eurocentric worldview. The term “Native Americans” itself embodies a point of view that groups a large number of very different nations and cultures together defined by what we are not.

What is missing in that perspective is the very real and important distinction that the many Indigenous nations in what is now the United States are very diverse and different from one another. In many ways the Métis people of the Great Lakes region have little in common with the Hopi, with worldviews and ways of being in the world that are far removed. “Native Americans” as an ethnic group is a creation of white culture. Political reality has brought these many nations and cultures together as allies and advocates … an ironic side effect of colonialism.

That said, getting back to the question of equity in philanthropy, the path to a more equitable distribution of resources is not to begin with an accounting of dollars allocated to one funder-created category against another, but to begin with a sincere and committed initiative to understand and become conversant with the individual and distinct cultural communities you serve. Enter these conversations with the understanding that the values you may encounter may be very different, even contrary to those you hold. Arts forms and the roles that material culture plays in the lives of people may not always be apparent, or even visible.

I respectfully suggest dropping the idea that equity is quantifiable or measurable. Forget about numbers, and think of equity as a space — or a way of being — that you create where all cultural expression is valued equally. Then, think about developing funding programs within that construct.

Equity as a Matter of Responsibility and Freedom

Today, December 10, would seem a vibrant time for a dialogue about equity. It is International Human Rights Day, when many around the world seek to uplift and amplify human rights situations. At the same time, our exploration of equity, Indigenous Peoples and philanthropy is unfolding parallel to the UN’s Climate Change Conference (or COP18) in Doha, Qatar.

Many colleagues engaged in Doha have been clear that the discussions taking place are less about climate justice and our responsibilities to the global community and environment, and far more about economics. Certainly there are discussions about emissions, cap and trade, rights, and the like. The tensions between polluting nation-states (primarily global north) and everyone else are likely palpable at every conference table and panel session.

One could say that what is really on the table is the topic of development, and quite frankly, the elephant in the room is a larger global justice. It’s about finding a way — if that is possible at all — for the world to agree that there is a right to self-development for all. For fairness, for justice, for equity. In accordance with the self-determination and sovereignty of nations, will the agreements in Doha assure that the future well-being of the planet and of our future generations will not be traded by the most powerful for financial profits today? And have those who have consistently had the benefit, and reaped the ongoing profits of development, used up their fair share? How can power shift?

Doha is also an interesting backdrop for a conversation about arts, justice, and equity. Already having served eleven months in solitary confinement, the Qatari poet Muhammad al-Ajami was sentenced last week to life imprisonment. His poem “Tunisian Jasmine” has been deemed seditious and insulting to the throne.

What do discussions about development and climate justice have to do with Indigenous Peoples, equity, and philanthropy? And how does the story of Muhammad al-Ajami’s persecution connect at all with what we are talking about?

From my perspective it does. It is about expanding the discussion of what is “equity” and whether it is a dialogue about sharing or sameness or equality, or access to benefits, or even to express different perspectives. And with this blog it is an opportunity to honestly explore how equity is an issue of rights, responsibilities, and justice.

Like many in philanthropy — not just Native people — I share a serious concern about this and how sadly, this inequity seems deeply entrenched in philanthropic practice. I am further concerned that against this uneven landscape, the impending fiscal cliff may have even more significant negative implications for philanthropy in general, and continue to asymmetrically impact the most disenfranchised, like Native peoples.

If a grant is also seen as an investment, then is it clear that the philanthropic arena is wholeheartedly not investing in Native America. Although there are some considered as outstanding within philanthropy who support Indigenous initiatives, overwhelmingly the resources are directed elsewhere. Over my twenty years in philanthropy all the reasons behind this continued lack of investment remain unclear. Although there have been some studies, the deeper root causes have not yet been fully revealed. It seems to me that the lack of equity is repression. Like the climate change analogy, self-development for Native arts and cultures requires a level of investment as resource equity.

Muhammad al-Ajami’s future messages may suffer a lifetime of silence. His poems may rest idle and unprinted anywhere but echo forever from within him rarely to breathe free air. So too may much of Native arts and cultural work if it remains so sorely underresourced and restricted to the confines of the reservation. Although I unwaveringly believe that once a mind is freed it can no longer be caged, I also know that there is an effective strategy in disappearing a poet, rendering invisible a person, or quieting the songs of Peoples.

Might this all really be a discussion about development and economics — and who is entitled — and not about actual fairness or benefit sharing at all, even though we often carefully wrap discussions about equity in class or race or geography or other constructs? My guess is that a shift in philanthropic practice may be long overdue. Is fairness possible? Against this landscape, what would equitable philanthropy that honors Indigenous paradigms, and what such thinking offers the world, really look like?

Native Americans … We Don’t Bite! (But We Laugh Hard)

Last month, I was invited by a Native student organization to speak at their local college about “Indians” for National Native American Heritage Month (and it was Thanksgiving week). There was a good mixture of Native and non-Native folks, including several international students. To begin, I asked everyone to introduce themselves and to share one fact they knew about Native Americans. I reinforced, “It has to be a fact, any fact.” As we went around the room, the nervousness and consistent inability to articulate one fact about Native Americans were prevalent. People, understandably, did not want to make a mistake, offend, express ignorance, or reveal lack of knowledge. Most started with saying, “I think, but am not completely sure this is a fact, but …” Even the Native students were a bit nervous. I was friendly and reassuring, keeping the mood light and nonjudgmental. At the end of this process, we had a lively discussion about what just took place.

I strongly believe that we are all related, inextricably tied together by the twine of creation. And in order to elevate concepts like racial equity, human rights, and social justice, we must engage in the uncomfortable, make some mistakes, reveal a little of our ignorance, and be willing to question the unquestionable.

Yes, Native American issues are complex. Yes, US history and relationship with Native Americans are ugly. Yes, guilt and shame are real. Yes, Native people have not forgotten and will not forget. Yes, there are still lots of pain and healing to be done. Yes, Native Americans like to laugh.

Knowing racial equity and justice are major mountains to climb, I offer that any actions of engagement, inclusion, relationship building, investment, understanding, healing, etc., should be vetted carefully through the discerning adjectives — genuine, intentional, humble, just, authentic, etc. If our grantmaking and organizing can’t pass this smell-and-taste test, perhaps a return to the kitchen is in order.

Was my time at the college campus worth it? Yes! Because I know that the Native students humbly and respectfully invited me to their campus to help build authentic relationships with other students and were intentional about building understanding about Native peoples and issues. They were genuine about their intentions and the result was another small step on our collective healing journey.

And we all laughed.

Indigenous Perspectives on Equity in Philanthropy

Solstice is nearing. We note how early evening comes and how long the nighttime lingers. We eagerly await springtime to welcome its warmth, sunshine, and promise of new life. This is a transitional time of ending and renewal. We can feel it in our bodies, and in the depth of our very bones. These feelings are known as instinct, ancestral memory, and blood knowledge; we sense and are aware that significant change is coming and that we have a part in it. We are participant, contributor, and co-generator.

For many Indigenous Peoples, this is very sacred time, enriched with a redistribution of wealth and giving of positive energy through giveaways and vigorous all-night ceremonies to balance all things. Actively re-aligning that which is within ourselves, within our communities and nations, and within and for the Earth herself. Dancers and singers enter into the footsteps of their ancestors for days-long circuits that were initiated hundreds and thousands of years ago to support the reciprocal cycles of life, death and renewal … a nonanthropocentric objective for world well-being. Sacrifice, reciprocity, and responsibility. This is the foundation of Indigenous philanthropy.

Traditional storytelling is abundant at this time, especially stories about emergence and physical/spiritual migration. This season offers a cultural construct to reflect on who we are, how we got here, and where we are going … our identity, location, and consciousness in time, space, and being. Many know of Indigenous prophecies that speak of this time. Rather than foretelling the end of the world, such teachings say that this specific time — understood by many to be a time of taking, expressed in exploitation, selfishness, individualism — will soon give way to a new era. This new time will be one of enlightenment and contemplation and will be highlighted by sharing, collectivity, peace, and justice. Perhaps this is an ideal time then, for an exploration on Indigenous perspectives on equity in philanthropy.

Defining “equity” is heavily reliant on context. From recent formal conference sessions, informal dialogues, blogs, and other mediums, it’s very clear that there is not yet a consensus understanding, at least in philanthropy, of the word itself. Equality. Justice. Fairness. Sameness. Balance. Our own personal lenses colored by history, culture, and experience shape and define our understanding and our intention, when we use the term.

In the financial realm, equity refers to shareholders in terms of investment strategies, with “equity” a principal asset class such as a stock or other security, representing ownership interest. Those owning stock, for instance, are stakeholders and can have great influence. Basically, in that construct, those with “equity” have power. In applying such an understanding to this discussion of Indigenous Peoples, equity, and philanthropy, we must ask, How or to what extent do Indigenous Peoples have an ownership interest in formal philanthropy, like a stakeholder? What is our influence? Do we have power? In this construct that is known as philanthropy, what is “equity” for Indigenous Peoples? More importantly, where is “equity” for the earth?


1. Reina Mukai and Steven Lawrence, Foundation Funding for Native American Issues and People (New York: The Foundation Center in cooperation with Native American in Philanthropy, 2011).