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My Native American Heritage

This year for Native American Heritage Month, I have been reflecting on my own Native American heritage. I am Oglala Lakota through my father and German American through my mother – and I’m blessed with this lineage. However, since it is Native American Heritage Month, let me focus on that side.

Sherry Salway Black is an infant in her father's arms in this family photo taken in Pine Ridge Village.

Sherry Salway Black is an infant in her father’s arms in this family photo taken in Pine Ridge Village.

I was the only one of four siblings born on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota – and I’m the only one that has spent their career working with Native peoples and Native issues. I didn’t grow up on Pine Ridge – my family was part of the federal American Indian “relocation movement” from the mid-1940s – early 1960s – a policy of assimilation. After getting my undergraduate degree in Pennsylvania in the mid-1970s, I felt drawn to “return” to the reservation, to meet family I had only talked to on the phone and to see the place I was born, as many “urban Indian” young adults from relocated families did at the time. I haven’t “left” Indian Country since – working with and for Native peoples for more than 40 years.  To bind the tie even tighter I married into the Seneca Nation.

Being Native means different things to different people.  To me, it means I have a rich, vibrant network of relatives, friends and colleagues, both Native and non-Native, across the country and the world, who work for the betterment of Native peoples. To me, being Native means lifelong learning about the diverse, magnificent and resilient Native communities to better understand and assist in development.  To me, being Native means I have been blessed with financial support for my undergraduate education and my graduate degree which led to a career where I have been passionate about my work.  I’ve worked directly in communities with Native peoples and tribal nations, locally with Native organizations, and nationally with national Native and non-Native organizations and the federal government.  Being Native led me down a unique and rewarding lifelong path.

This postcard shot of Pine Ridge village was taken during the 1950s.

This postcard shot of Pine Ridge Village was taken during the 1950s.

I have received so many opportunities because of my Native heritage. Many generations of leaders, both Native and non-Native, made this possible through their work, commitment and advocacy along with sacrifices by our ancestors. What do I owe in return? Being Native means you might be eligible to receive certain benefits but these benefits come with certain responsibilities, certain obligations. The importance of giving back – or reciprocity – is so vital to Native societies.

In this month to celebrate and recognize Native Americans and their innumerable, vast and continuing contributions to this country, and in the season of giving and appreciation, let each of us, with our unique and diverse heritages, give thanks for all that we have. And do not forget to reciprocate, or give back, for your good fortune.

It’s November – Time to Learn about the Indigenous Peoples of the US!

closeup of blanket with the words native american heritage month overlayed
In November each year, people become interested in American Indians.  It originally had to do with – and still does to some extent – the fact that Thanksgiving happens in November.  However since 1990, there has been a joint resolution by Congress, approved by the President, proclaiming November to be Native American (or American Indian and Alaska Native) Heritage Month.    So people – typically teachers – become very interested in the Native peoples of the U.S. in November.   Native people and organizations are asked if they can help educate their students, members, or employees and are happy to do it.  It’s a benefit to Native peoples to have others know more than what they were taught in their high school history class or scouts lessons.old photograph of a native american wearing a headdress

Well, if you are interested in learning more about Native peoples in November or all year long, here are some ideas in case you don’t know where to start.  If you are able to visit with Native peoples, preferably in their own communities, that is the place to start.  If you cannot do that, then you can always read books.  I have many favorites but thought I would share just a few recommendations:

  • If you just want the facts then I would start with “Tribal Nations and the United States: A Brief Introduction.”  It is about 45 pages filled with rich infographics and beautiful photographs and much content for you to read and learn.  There is a web version you can view and also a PDF to download if you want to share with others.
  • Anything written by Vine Deloria, Jr. is more than worthwhile. If you don’t know who he is, that is where you start – do a Google search to learn more about him.  He was a writer, activist, theologian, historian, lawyer, and teacher.  I think his best book to start would be his 1969 “Custer Died for Your Sins:  An Indian Manifesto.”   In it, he breaks down stereotypes and destroys myths about Native peoples as it captures the story of growing Native power and activist efforts.
  • Like a Hurricane” by Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior covers similar ground as Deloria in “Custer Died for Your Sins” in terms of the activist movements in Indian Country but it extends beyond 1970 into critical events that shaped where
    we are today.
  • If you want to learn about an earlier history, then Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West,” is definitely worth reading. It was critically acclaimed when it was published in 1970 and two chapters were later adapted for an HBO film in 2007.
  • Finally, here are just two recommendations for works of fiction. Michael Dorris’ debut novel and dubbed his best, “Yellow Raft in Blue Water” is the story of three generations of strong Native women set primarily in Montana.  And just for fun, I recommend “The Indians Won” by Martin Cruz Smith as an alternate view of history.  It is out of print but available on Amazon.

Now that I’ve written this piece, it has made me hungry to re-read some of my favorites soman standing next to a painted horse as I head on vacation I’m taking one or two with me.  Enjoy learning!


Native Women: Leading the Way

There are some great things happening in Indian Country – the Indigenous communities in the United States. And Native women are leading the way, especially when it comes to business and entrepreneurship, asset building, credit and finance, and the creative economy. Tanya Fiddler, Elsie Meeks, Tawney Brunsch, and Lori Pourier represent a small sample of brilliant, long-time Native leaders working on some of the hardest issues – and in some of the most difficult locations – and finding success.

For 25 years, the Johnson Scholarship Foundation (JSF) has invested in the efforts of Indigenous communities in the U.S. to develop their economies. JSF’s strategy is to focus primarily on education – in the case of Native communities, in entrepreneurship and business education at tribal colleges and universities and Native-serving education institutions.  We also invest in Native leadership by supporting the efforts of Native non-profits working in economic development.

As it so happens, JSF has invested in the organizations led by these awesome women – and has seen positive change as a result.

JSF supported the efforts of Tanya Fiddler when she was the Executive Director of the Four Bands Community Loan Fund on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Through Four Bands, Tanya helped to support business creation, financial education, and Man with baseball cap reviewing paperwork with a woman assisting himasset building on one of the poorest counties in the US.  And when she recently took the lead at the Native CDFI Network, JSF provided support for the work of this relatively new group that organizes and supports the increasing number of Community Development Financial Institutions in Native communities.

Elsie Meeks has been instrumental in the Native CDFI movement from the start as the one-time executive director of the Lakota Fund (now the Lakota Funds), the head of the First Nations Oweesta Corporation, and now back as the chairperson of the Lakota Funds. two women speaking at a conference boothElsie took her knowledge and experience to lead many national efforts and represent
Indigenous peoples on the U.S. Human Rights Commission, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Northwest Area Foundation, and now with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. JSF provided support at a critical time for the Lakota Fund.

The Lakota Funds is now led by Tawney Brunsch, a no-nonsense leader focused primarily on her community, the Pine Ridge Tawney BrunschIndian Reservation in South Dakota – and state/regional issues that affect her community. She also founded the Lakota Federal Credit Union (LCFU) four years ago and now serves as
the chair of the board. The Lakota Federal Credit Union has served the Pine Ridge community – again, one of the poorest in the U.S. – for more than 30 years and continues to make a difference in this community through business lending, business and financial education, credit repair, savings, and now working on housing. JSF provided an equity grant to the LFCU helping to provide consumer credit capital for this community – LFCU now has more than 2500 members.

Lori Pourier heads First Peoples Fund (FPF), a 17 year old national Native non-profit Lori Pourierworking with culture bearers and artists in Indigenous communities. Lori is a leader in the field – not just for Native arts and culture – but arts and culture period. She is the go-to person for the “creative economy” in Indian Country. FPF provides professional training workshops for Native artists and works with NCDFIs to train business coaches on how to work with Native artists. FPF also provides fellowship for Native artists to help them grow and improve their businesses. JSF supported FPF to expand their efforts to work with Native artists.

One of the many attributes I admire about these amazing leaders is their collaboration and partnership efforts. They all work together on many initiatives and recognize that supporting one another with their communities, with the tribal/state/federal government, with other partners, and with funders elevates all of their efforts. Tanya, Elsie and Tawney all work together on the South Dakota Native American Housing Coalition to provide not only much needed housing on reservations but helping to create jobs in housing construction. Lori and Tawney are currently working to expand training and financial products to Native artists – and expand financial services to the community – through a “Rolling Rez Arts” van that also serves as a mobile bank.

Having worked in philanthropy for many years now, I know that many foundations do not have experience in Native communities, feel that it is too risky, or do not fund “special population groups.” These four women have worked for many years on some of the riskiest ventures, in some of the most difficult communities – and have been successful. They are having an impact not only in their communities but across Indigenous communities – and beyond. Investing in their leadership and their organizations is a good bet.

We at JSF would be happy to talk with other funders interested in funding Indigenous communities and share our experiences with you.