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A Conversation With Sarah Eagle Heart, CEO, Native Americans in Philanthropy

March 21, 2018

In 2011, a report from Native Americans in Philanthropy and Foundation Center found that foundation funding explicitly benefiting Native Americans had declined from 0.5 percent of overall funding to 0.3 percent over the previous decade. While there has been no follow-up to that report, Sarah Eagle Heart, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy, recently told PND that philanthropic support of Native causes hasn't come close to reaching 1 percent of overall funding in any year since then. And while even that level of funding is inadequate, given the need in Native communities, Eagle Heart argues, "it would be equitable."

Last year, Eagle Heart was honored with the American Express NGen Leadership Award, which is presented at Independent Sector's annual conference each fall to a "next-generation" leader whose work and advocacy have had a transformative impact on a critical societal need. Praised for her abilities as a storyteller, Eagle Heart focuses her work at NAP on educating and advocating for the needs of Native communities across the country.

Earlier this year, PND spoke with Eagle Heart about the dearth of research on Native communities in the United States, the need for greater education to raise awareness of Native issues, and the role racial healing can and must play in bringing equity to indigenous cultures.

Headshot_sarah-eagle-heartPhilanthropy News Digest: In announcing you as the winner of the 2017 American Express NGen Leadership Award, Independent Sector praised your talent as a storyteller and your ability to bridge cultures. What's the biggest story today about Native Americans that other Americans aren't hearing or don't understand?

Sarah Eagle Heart: In general, people don't pay attention — and never have paid attention — to Native Americans or our issues. And I believe one of the reasons Independent Sector chose me for the award was to raise the visibility of Native Americans. When philanthropic organizations look at Native Americans, we're just not as noticeable, statistically speaking, as other ethnic groups. As you know, Native Americans in Philanthropy worked with Foundation Center in 2011 to create a report, Foundation Funding for Native American Issues and Peoples, which showed that less than 0.3 percent of philanthropic funding goes to Native communities, even though we’re between 1 percent and 2 percent of the overall population. So, even if philanthropy increased its giving for Native causes, issues, and nonprofits to 1 percent to 2 percent of total funding, it would still be a drop in the bucket. But we're not seeing that level of funding, and we haven't seen that level of funding at any point over the twenty-seven years of Native Americans in Philanthropy's existence.

PND: Why is that?

SEH: There's not enough research to answer that question. When I started at Native Americans in Philanthropy two and a half years ago, I noticed we were not included in a lot of research reports, there was no contextual research for our communities. In philanthropy, a lot of how you get noticed, or heard, or invited to the table has to do with research. In 2015-16, for example, many of the research reports that came out had a little asterisk that said Native American populations were statistically insignificant. The researchers have since tried to walk back some of those disclaimers, but it goes to show how much philanthropy has been paying attention to Native people. I'm aware that our community is hard to gather statistics on, in part because we live in both urban and rural communities. But I don't think that should be an obstacle to better research.

Another complication is that our communities constantly have to educate funders. Our country is slowly beginning to understand, thanks to issues like the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Standing Rock protests, that we've been working for nearly thirty years to get school systems to portray American Indian history more accurately. We're doing our best to combat stereotypes and propaganda that have depicted Natives as being marginal and unimportant, that we don't count and can be ignored.

PND: Is the situation improving?

SEH: Not really. A recent study found that if you Google "Native American," it doesn't return an image of a contemporary Native person. Google another ethnic group, and you might get images of somebody sitting at a table or as part of a contemporary street scene. But for Native Americans, what you get are depictions of historical images from a hundred or two hundred years ago. You can almost understand why some people think we've vanished.

I really believe that one of the reasons it's so important Native people are heard and seen is that we have so much wisdom to share. When you look at some of the environmental and climate change issues we face, Native people saw it all coming a long time ago and have been raising the alarm for years. It's time philanthropy listened. That's where Native Americans in Philanthropy comes in. We're sharing some of that collective wisdom through our Indigenous Lifecourse research report, which is focused on sharing protective factors from an asset frame rather than a deficit frame.

PND: Protective factors?

SEH: Those are the conditions or attributes, in communities and individuals, that help people deal with stressful events and mitigate risks to their well-being. In philanthropy, those elements are often conveyed in the context of a deficit frame, which is sort of like explaining the challenges and not providing solutions.

Our Indigenous Lifecourse report articulates our worldview. While non-Native people often think in terms of time and goals, Native Americans think more in terms of space. And we look at our protective factors as things like traditional language, extended kinship bonds, and community control — all of which are helping to create change in our communities and are important to fund. A lot of the work of NAP does is connected to these protective factors, which were identified by indigenous scholars like Dr. Rosalee Gonzales, Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, and Dr. Karina Walters. Their work was inspired, in part, by former President Obama's Generation Indigenous initiative, which highlighted many of the issues that Native youths see in their communities. Unfortunately, Generation Indigenous is not receiving a lot of support or attention from the White House these days.

PND: You've mentioned Standing Rock. Back in the fall of 2016, NAP held a regional gathering on the Standing Rock Reservation. Did that gathering — and the funders' tour that followed — accomplish what you hoped it would?

SEH: There's still a lot of work to do, but I do consider that gathering to be a success. For one thing, it resulted in a $1.25 million gift to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe from the Wallace Global Fund for a renewable energy project. That was huge, but so was their allowing us to acknowledge the role NAP played in educating them about Native issues and so were the connections made between funders and the knowledge sharing. It is an example of something tangible and highlights what focused communication with funders can do in terms building relationships, networking, and the education piece I mentioned. That acknowledgement by the fund has helped us build ongoing relationships with many of the people and groups that attended the gathering and has helped activate people in these communities to look for opportunities to work with and in Native communities. It also showed funders that NAP can be a partner in terms of guiding and supporting foundation staff doing important work in Native communities. That is long overdue.

PND: Why has this been such a challenge?

SEH: I'll give an example. If a Native person goes to talk to a funder about the nonprofit she runs and the work she’s doing, she might be given an hour to make her presentation. But if the funder isn't educated about Native issues, or doesn’t understand the specific cultural or community context, the nonprofit leader will end up spending forty-five minutes doing a Native American 101 course and only fifteen minutes talking about her own project or needs.

That's why we're working with Foundation Center on a Web portal that will provide a historical timeline of philanthropic support for Native causes as well as data about funding trends. We need something like that to help us educate funders and make our case more quickly and effectively.

PND: Do you think the growing focus in philanthropy on racial equity will have a positive impact on the funding environment for Native American organizations?

SEH: There has been a lot of new funding for racial equity over the past several years, and many communities are making sure that Native people are at the table. That's been at the heart of NAP's Movement of Movements campaign, which is about making sure that everybody has each other's backs. We also remind others to view racial equity in the context of U.S. history and through contemporary issues like the pipeline protests or the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Do I believe these efforts will lead to more funding for Native American organizations and issues? Yes. But we still have a long way to go to address the educational piece, the idea that Native peoples are "noble savages." There's just so much education that remains to be done — in philanthropy, and in American society more generally.

Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King was saying exactly that. In Why We Can't Wait, he wrote, "Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it."

So, yes, I applaud the movement for racial equity. Being at the table is important. But supporting meaningful action is even more important. At this point, Native people have heard a lot of pretty words; it's time for our communities to see some action.

PND: What's the way forward?

SEH: Through racial healing. One of the reasons I love Martin Luther King is because of the work I did for the Episcopal Church around the Doctrine of Discovery, which has since been repudiated by many other denominations and organizations, including the World Council of Churches in 2012.

Racial healing also is critical in terms of addressing what happened during the Indian boarding school era. I'm on the board of a nonprofit called the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which I joined when I was at the Episcopal Church.

PND: Can you provide a little context for readers who may not be familiar with either of those historical episodes.

SEH: Let's start with the Doctrine of Discovery, which argued that colonial powers staking out claims to new lands they had occupied had an inherent right to those claims and to rule the people whose lands were possessed. The doctrine was first articulated by the governments of Spain and Portugal after Columbus’s "discovery" of the Americas and later adopted and codified by the American government when Thomas Jefferson was secretary of state under President George Washington, and by the Supreme Court under John Marshall in the 1820s. Of course, the practices that the Supreme Court "legitimized" had been going on for more than two hundred years, ever since the English established a colony at Jamestown.

The Marshall decision basically allowed the concept of Manifest Destiny to be enforced. If we fast-forward to after the Civil War, the Bureau of Indian Affairs expanded the number of boarding schools that had been started by Christian missionaries of various denominations. Some of the Christian boarding schools had been started on reservations, but the BIA schools were based on the off-reservation, assimilation model that emerged from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which was founded by Richard Henry Pratt. He's known for saying "Kill the Indian, save the man." The idea, of course, was to "civilize" the Native American and eradicate everything in him that was "evil," meaning our culture, our language, our clothes, our kinship ties. Under the system that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Native children were forced to leave their families and attend these boarding schools, of which there were more than five hundred at one point. My grandma's generation was forced to go to these boarding schools. The families had no choice: it was either give up your child or face starvation or jail. Many of these children experienced horrors; there were widespread reports of rape, of abuse, of children who went missing and never came home. Add to that the horror of being separated from your family as these things are happening to you.

Indian boarding schools existed into the 1980s. There are many Native people who had good experiences at school and will defend them by saying, "I had food, I had shelter." The one thing that happened, though, across all Native communities, was the slow disappearance of language and of culture. And that meant the traditional values we have around kinship and extended families were not reinforced or taught. The consequences of that have been devastating, including domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and any number of other challenges.

It's a history that is hard for America to face. More often than not, people just block it out; they don't want to talk about it or even think about it. But at some point, the question becomes: How can we move forward? How can we talk about racial justice and racial healing if we're not willing to talk about this history? Native people didn't vanish; some of us assimilated into the broader culture, and some of us kept our languages alive, kept our cultures and communities intact. We survived. We're living reminders of this terrible past.

And, yes, an important part of racial healing is being able to acknowledge the past. At events where I appear, I have begun to ask that space is made for a blessing and for an acknowledgement of the place where the event is being held. It may seem like a little thing, but it really is huge, because when you do that, you're acknowledging that history. You're acknowledging the people the land belonged to originally. But you're also acknowledging the people who are in that moment with you — all in one simple act. It doesn't have to be elaborate or wordy. It just has to be an acknowledgment of the fact that this is land that once belonged to Native people. That, for me, is a simple way of beginning the healing process and moving forward.

PND: Where are we, as a country, on the road to racial healing and equity?

SEH: We are only at the very beginning stages of the healing that's needed. My grandparents and their contemporaries, many of whom are in their eighties, are only now able to talk about what happened to them at boarding school. And organizations are beginning to collect their stories, because it's important for our communities to know. For so long this history was a shameful thing that even our own communities were reluctant to talk about.

But now the younger generation is saying, "No. We want our culture, and we also want to talk about what it's going to take for healing to take place in our communities." That's the gift of working with Generation Indigenous. They are demanding this of us, of their parents and their grandparents. And it's what they are asking of the rest of America, too. It really is the start of something amazing, both in Native communities and in the United States. We'll be talking more about all of this during our National Philanthropy Institute in June.

PND: How has your racial healing work affected other work you're doing at NAP?

SEH: It has deeply influenced our work. Today, I understand what healing looks like on an individual level, as well as at the community, national, and international levels, because of my work as a translator and as an educator. And it has helped me share the stories I've heard, not only from a Native perspective but also from a Christian denominational perspective.

I feel like I’ve been called to do this work. I come from a family that believed in both traditional spirituality — our own traditional Lakota spirituality — as well as Christianity. And ours is a community that believes we are all one, that we are all connected, through the understanding of Mitakuye Oyasin ["All are related"]. It's a perspective that many people have never heard before, or maybe have forgotten, but it's the right message for these times.

— Matt Sinclair

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