Revitalizing Ojibwe language, teaching traditional storytelling and educating young people on treaty history are all efforts that northern Minnesota's tribal communities often rely on volunteers to carry out.

A new Duluth-based Northland Foundation grant program, Maada'ookiing, aims to finance some of that volunteer work.

Built so that representatives from area tribal nations — not foundation staff — decide who is awarded money, Maada'ookiing translates to "distribution" in Ojibwe. Grants of up to $2,500 will be awarded three times a year to individuals or informal groups starting May 1. The idea is to award grassroots efforts as opposed to nonprofits and ensure that proposals are viewed from an Indigenous perspective. This first round, $25,000 has been set aside to award to people within the foundation's service area.

It's a way to offset costs for unfunded community building work, said LeAnn Littlewolf, Northland's senior program officer, who is coordinating the giving program.

"It's for those with limited resources but have a heart for the people," said Littlewolf, enrolled with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

Gift giving is hugely important to Native American culture, Littlewolf said, "and this is a way to support that."

The foundation consulted with Karen Diver, who served as special assistant to the president for Native American affairs under President Barack Obama and is a former leader of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. She ensured the organization understood and respected tribal sovereignty and Native American history.

Across the country, less than 1% of philanthropy goes to tribes and Indigenous people, Diver said. Because a lot of wealth came from things that used to belong to Indigenous people, like land, timber and minerals, she said, "this is really about equity and closing the gaps that were created by capitalism off of Indigenous assets."

Baabiitaw Boyd is commissioner of administration for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a member of the board that will review grant applications. (Other members are from the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Fond du Lac and Couchiching First Nation.)

This is native-led philanthropy, Boyd said, and that lens matters when it comes to knowing what's underfunded or overlooked, like the transfer of cultural knowledge from one generation to the next.

"We want to make sure people who have bright ideas to serve their communities have the ability to do that," she said.

Alexandera Houchin, a tribal government fellow for the Fond du Lac Band, also serves on the advisory board.

The resources necessary to become a nonprofit and gain eligibility for grants can be time-consuming, so making money available to grassroots groups will trigger more possibilities, she said.

It's about an active citizenry, Diver said, as tribal and traditional governments and nonprofits shouldn't be expected to generate all ideas that contribute to community health.

"I think the model is kind of cool because it says everybody has a role to play in making our communities better," she said.

And considering Ojibwe people haven't historically had a "seat at the table with organizations with institutional wealth," Boyd said, it's also a chance to create meaningful change from the inside.

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450