The family of railroad baron James J. Hill started a charitable foundation in 1934 with the wealth it accrued after the railroad swept westward through American Indian lands.
Today, that Northwest Area Foundation is trying to make amends, giving 40 percent of its $16 million in annual grants to Indian-led organizations. It’s joined by a handful of Minnesota foundations that have prioritized such giving in recent years — bucking a national decline in philanthropy to Indian causes.
Annual charitable giving to Indian causes has dropped by one-third nationally in nearly a decade’s time, according to a recent analysis by the Colorado-based nonprofit First Nations Development Institute.
But Minnesota is a bright spot as home to six of the 30 foundations most generous to Indian causes, giving $118.5 million in that time. Only New York gave more between 2006 and 2014.
“I don’t know what’s in the water up there, but Twin Cities philanthropies are doing great work for Indian Country,” said First Nations President and CEO Michael E. Roberts.
The Northwest Area Foundation, Bush Foundation, Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, McKnight Foundation, Charles K. Blandin Foundation and Otto Bremer Trust are all making large investments in Indian Country. In addition, Indian communities in Minnesota with financial means, including the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, are also prominent givers.
Supporting range of services
Together, they are pouring millions of dollars and low-interest loans into the arts, education, good-governance programs, business development and antipoverty efforts benefiting tribes across the country.
“A lot of our major funders are based in Minnesota,” said Anna Seaton Huntington, development director at the First Peoples Fund in Rapid City, S.D. “It makes sense Minnesota is going to lead the way for the rest of the country.”
First Peoples, which supports artists and creative businesses, has received millions in grants from Minnesota foundations and private donors. In contrast, only about $10,000 of its $3 million annual budget typically comes from South Dakota foundations and donors.
“We feel so fortunate to be in the funding region of many of those Minnesota-based philanthropies,” Huntington said.
The Northwest Area Foundation decided to allocate 40 percent of its grants to Indian Country about seven years ago. In 2017, that amounted to about $7 million, said its President and CEO Kevin Walker, with much of it focused on economic issues, such as workforce development and small business loans, across eight states and 75 Indian tribes.
“For us, it was about making the commitment, building relationships and sticking with it,” Walker said. “And you have to have a sense of optimism that the needle can be moved.”
They have awarded First Peoples Fund $1 million in recent years, and the organization’s CEO Lori Lea Pourier said that support has helped attract the attention of other national donors.
“They are a good example for other philanthropy because everyone is sitting on Indian people’s land,” she said. “I know many don’t want to hear it, but it’s really fact.”
She said native causes often struggle to get noticed, partly because foundations tend to focus on dense urban populations while many tribes are in rural areas. Plus, Pourier said, tribes often lack relationships with foundation staff, and there’s a perception that issues in Indian Country are too difficult to solve — and sometimes it’s “flat-out racism.”
The St. Paul-based Bush Foundation has given away $30 million to Indian causes since 2013, prioritizing native-led organizations and programs dealing with leadership and governance, as well as arts, education and culture.
Bush Foundation President Jennifer Ford Reedy said effective philanthropy in those communities comes from building “really strong, trusting friendships” and a commitment to supporting community leaders — not dictating solutions from the outside.
“We kept showing up,” Ford Reedy said. “It showed we were serious about these communities.”
The Bush Foundation established the Native Governance Center in St. Paul in 2015, which provides leadership development and tribal governance support. The center has now spun off as its own nonprofit.
Executive Director Wayne Ducheneaux II, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux, said the center is training tribal leaders and helping them rewrite old, faulty boilerplate constitutions forced on tribes by the federal government decades ago.
“Bush understands it took several hundreds of years for Indian Country to get in this state we are in,” he said. “It will take a long-term investment and partnership in Indian Country to help Indian Country climb back up.”
The First Nations report on the decline in giving to Indian causes doesn’t include giving by tribes. But people working on those issues in Minnesota point to leadership by tribes — and giving by those with means — as a catalyst.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which owns and operates Mystic Lake Casino Hotel, gave away $18 million last year to Indian causes and other recipient groups.
Indian veterans memorial
This fall, Tribal Chairman Charles Vig and others traveled to Washington, D.C., for the groundbreaking of the National Native American Veterans Memorial. The tribe was the first in the nation to commit $1 million to the project — and others have since followed suit.
“Native Americans served at a higher percentage than other ethnic groups,” said Rebecca Crooks-Stratton, the tribe’s secretary and treasurer. “It’s important our vets have a place of honor on the Mall.”
Vig said the tribe wants its philanthropy to model its values: restoring and respecting the land and healing the mind and body.
That has translated into a wide range of projects, including $300,000 for a Wisconsin tribe rebuilding its wastewater treatment facility, $750,000 to help the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota build a new community center, and $500,000 for the Blackfeet Nation in Montana to enhance its broadband network.
In Scott County, where the tribe is located, it has given $50,000 for a new bookmobile and recently announced $300,000 in grants for trail improvements.
“We give because we can, and it’s part of our culture,” Vig said.