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American Indian Business Leaders Blaze a Trail to the Future with New Advisory Board

There’s an adage about having a direction that says, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

A couple years ago, the American Indian Business Leaders, with the assistance of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, spent some time examining where we wanted to go – and how to get there.

The American Indian Business Leaders was founded in 1994 with the mission of empowering Indigenous business students in the United States to foster economic improvement in Native American communities. We’ve grown from one chapter at the University of Montana at Missoula to 120 chapters at universities, tribal colleges, and high schools with more than 250 tribal nations represented. With 2019 marking our 25th anniversary, it was an appropriate time to evaluate where the next 25 years would take us.

Young man wearing Indigenous Entrepreneur shirt

Through about a year of analysis and planning with input from respected leaders throughout Indian Country, AIBL learned what programs were most successful, and also, which ones needed improvement. Specifically, we realized that we could only guess at how to prepare our students to participate in corporate America because we didn’t know what attributes corporate America needed.

We’re excited that in the future, AIBL will get those answers straight from the executives themselves. AIBL is building a new advisory board with representatives from many of America’s best known corporations. We expect to hold the first meeting in the first quarter of 2020.

We anticipate having 8-10 members on the advisory board, and I’m happy to share that it will include Sam McCracken, general manager for Nike N7, Nike’s product line that supports the N7 Fund to provide sport and physical activity programming to kids in Native American and Aboriginal communities. Longtime AIBL supporter Trina Finley Ponce, the diversity and inclusion program manager at HP, also has agreed to join the board along with Micah Highwalking, senior operations manager at Dr. Pepper.

Two men on stage in front of American Indigenous Business Leaders logo

In addition to advising us on corporate culture, the advisory board will help us cultivate relationships with corporate America that can benefit our students in numerous ways. We’ll be using them as a sounding board to learn what kinds of skills we should be helping our students develop. That feedback is important as we prepare our students to work in corporate America. We also know it’s important to hear from people in a diverse range of businesses as each business and industry has its own corporate culture.

We also anticipate that the advisory board will act as a bridge to greater diversity for corporations wanting to be inclusive of Native Americans and our culture.

We at AIBL are proud of our first 25 years supporting Indigenous business students. We look forward to a future with even greater opportunities.

Prairie Bighorn Blount is the executive director of American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL). She grew up on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in eastern Montana and is an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Sioux Tribe. Before joining the AIBL organization, she worked in Washington, D.C., providing contract management services to help support economic development within American Indian communities.

Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP): A Canada-wide Program to Improve Student Achievement

There is a deep understanding across Canada of the need to enhance strategies to improve Aboriginal student success. There are approximately 1.7 million Aboriginal People in Canada, and one third are under the age of 15 — making them the youngest and fastest growing demographic in the country.

Group of people in front of Nish Dish market
AYEP students visit Nish Dish catering.

A real concern for Canada is the low Aboriginal high school graduation rate; the non-Aboriginal high school graduation rate is about 92 percent while the Aboriginal rate remains at about 50 percent. The Martin Family Initiative (MFI), a charitable foundation, was established in 2008 to help address these issues.  

A decade ago, MFI (www.themfi.ca) launched the Grade 11 and 12 Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP) to encourage Aboriginal students to stay in school, to learn about the Canadian economy and to acquire entrepreneurial knowledge and experience.

AYEP is currently offered in 51 schools across Canada; approximately 4,600 students have participated in AYEP since its inception. The 220-hour curriculum:

AYEP students visit the Healing Centre
AYEP students visit the Healing Centre.
  • Contains Aboriginal content, including case studies and examples of successful Canadian Aboriginal business leaders.
  • Uses innovative hands-on activities, guest speakers and business mentors to help students learn how to create a product-based and/or service-driven business and about the services provided by banks and credit unions.
  • Improves students’ proficiency in financial literacy, business, mathematics, English, accounting, marketing and information and communications technology, while supporting the acquisition of self-confidence, as well as communication and leadership skills.  
  • Employs a variety of teaching strategies including simulations, competitions, guest speakers, field trips to businesses and mentoring.

MFI determined that there was a need for Aboriginal-focused textbooks and led the development of AYEP’s instructor and student resource materials. These teaching materials are the first of their kind in Canada.

A 60-hour non-credit course for Aboriginal adults has recently been developed; it includes key elements of the Grade 11 and the Grade 12 AYEP courses. This course is flexible and can be offered over multiple weekends, or daily over two weeks, or in other combinations.

MFI, like the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, firmly believes that education is the best means to empower people to become more independent and to participate more fully in the benefits of our society. Our range of targeted programs exemplifies this belief.

Dr. Carlana Lindeman began her career in education as a teacher and principal before joining the Ontario Ministry of Education (EDU). For 18 years she worked with school boards, and First Nation schools and organizations, to improve student achievement. In July 2008, she became the Education Program Director for the Martin Family Initiative, where she supports various strategies and activities related to Indigenous students across Canada. In 2009, she was awarded the Sandra D. Lang Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ontario Government for the depth and quality of service she provided to students, families and communities across Ontario.

Creating Visibility and Supportive Campus Environments for Native American Students

The American Indian College Fund explored how to support higher education’s role in creating safe and welcoming environments and greater visibility for American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) students at a convening it hosted of students, tribal college leaders and leaders from mainstream institutions of higher education (IHE), policy organizations and funders.

What we heard affirmed what we already knew — for Native students to be successful in college the institution must be committed to their inclusion.

Native students shared they want to go to college in an environment where their unique tribal identities are recognized, where their history and current lives are included in the curriculum and in campus life, and where they are visible.

Supporting education equity for Native students takes many forms. Native students at tribal colleges and mainstream institutions have benefited from Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s support of access to higher education through scholarships. The American Indian College Fund works to expand student support to specific ways that higher education institutions can be proactive with inclusion.

Four specific approaches were identified that can have an immediate impact on the experiences of Native students with higher education:

  1. Land acknowledgment: All higher education institutions exist on land that once served as the homeland of one or more tribal nations. Westward expansion, war and removal all impacted the abilities of tribes to situate themselves or have claims on homelands. When land acknowledgment occurs, Native students’ existence and experience is validated. I’ve learned that it is also a good educational exercise because most people don’t know whose homelands they are living on.

2. Representation in curriculum, at events and functions and in public materials: The history and contemporary experiences of indigenous peoples are usually not represented in curriculum. In addition, many times Native peoples are not onstage or giving presentations and are rarely included in public-facing places like websites and brochures. IHE can examine and modify curriculum to insure inclusion. For example, any American government class that doesn’t include tribal governments as a form of governance in the U.S. should immediately remedy that. When events are organized and representatives of various populations are invited to participate, inclusion of Native speakers should be automatically considered and materials and media should be reviewed to determine if Native student photos and stories are included.

3. Data inclusion: Ensuring the institution’s leadership knows the status of Native students is critical to success, whether it is one student or 400. Often the numbers are used as an excuse for not knowing the status of Native students and for not reporting that status to the public and to enrolled students. This may require extra effort to define who will be included in that population and what reporting will look like, but it is essential to overcoming invisibility.

4. Facilitating pathways through expanded recruitment, scholarship support and student services: IHE should examine their recruitment footprint and ensure enough outreach to have a broad group of potential students. They should also ensure sufficient financial support and targeted student services are provided, including designated advisors and counselors. Students also shared that having their own space matters. Native student centers and residential housing creates visible support on campus.

It takes intentional effort and sufficient investment to create climates where Native students can succeed. Native students are themselves excellent informants about what works. Tribal colleges and universities are good resources for best practices and strategic partnerships to support success.


Cheryl Crazy Bull is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Tribe and is President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund. She has more than 30 years of experience in Native higher education.

November is Native American Heritage Month

The photo above was taken at the Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s annual Entrepreneurship Scholarship meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona, last month. As you can see, we had a good turnout of JSF board members, staff and consultants and representation from almost all our nonprofit, tribal college and university partners in this program.

The Entrepreneurship Scholarship program is in its 28th year and this annual convening has been an integral part. The Foundation’s persistence in this program – and in our Indigenous funding generally – is paying a dividend of improvement and these meetings seem to get better every year.

The meeting heard a presentation by Jamie Schwartz and Tiffany Gusbeth of the American Indian College Fund. The College Fund administers 200 scholarship programs for Indigenous students, two of which – the Business Entrepreneurship and the Entrepreneurship Pipeline – are matching scholarship endowments established by the Foundation.

The Business Entrepreneurship Scholarship supports students who have already obtained an associate’s degree, typically at a tribal college, and are in their junior or senior year of a bachelor’s degree. This scholarship program has a 93 percent persistence and graduation rate.

The Entrepreneurship Pipeline supports first and second year business students at tribal colleges that do not partner directly with the Foundation. Interestingly, the College Fund has also gone into the secret sauce business and has developed “student success services” such as coaching and mentoring, transition assistance and peer tutoring.

Native American Heritage Month LogoWe also heard from Loris Taylor, president and CEO of Native Public Media, a network of 57 radio and four television stations. Loris gave a wonderful presentation on the strengths and challenges of Native Public Media and its role and potential in education.

The best of this meeting took place at the very beginning when we had presentations from two Johnson Scholars from Northern Arizona University. Dylan Graham, from the Navajo Nation, has just obtained a degree in hotel management and was president of NAU’s student body. She presented very well and, not surprisingly, has several options. She may go overseas to work with an international hotelier or to Arizona State University for an MBA.

Elliott Cooley is also from the Navajo Nation and is in his senior year of business management. While in high school he suffered nerve damage in a car accident that partially paralyzed his left side. After two years of physiotherapy he joined the Marines and served for four years, including a tour of duty in Iraq. He began college on the GI Bill and, when it ran out, obtained a Johnson Scholarship. Elliott is an entrepreneur and won the NAU Center for American Indian Economic Development (CAIED) business competition. He hopes to do business on the Navajo Reservation and serve as a role model for other would-be entrepreneurs.

Elliott referenced his tour of duty in Iraq and stressed how grateful he is for the freedom to pursue education and a career of his choice. Gratitude was a good theme at our meeting and for the Foundation’s work generally. A year from now it will be Native American Heritage Month and we will be back in Scottsdale, talking to our grantee partners about how we can support another year of their excellent work. We should all be grateful for this opportunity.

Malcolm Macleod is the president and CEO of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation (JSF). Since joining the Foundation as president in 2001, he has spent the past 17 years working with the Board, staff and grantees to ensure that JSF is a Foundation that makes quality grants serving as catalysts for effective change. Prior to his work with the Foundation, he had a 26-year career in law and is currently a member of the Bar.

What Coyote Stories Teach Us About Success

Among many Native Tribes in North America stories have been an important part of the oral traditions passed down over many generations. While each tribal group has stories unique to them, many times there are common themes shared by several different tribes. In the Northern Plains and Northwest U.S. these are often referred to as “Coyote Stories.”

Fox looking at the camera

Fox

While not all stories involve Coyote, he is a very important, and complex, character. Coyote is charged by the Creator with helping the people and looking after them, which he does enthusiastically. Knowing his flaws, however, the Creator asks Brother Fox to look after Coyote. Many stories are told about monsters or an evil of some kind that is threatening or killing the people. Coyote hears of this and rushes to the rescue. Inevitably, he charges full-steam into the battle with great courage and good intentions, but no plan or foresight. And, inevitably, he is killed. Along comes Brother Fox and performs some action or rite to bring Coyote back to life. Coyote then comes up with a clever and creative plan to defeat the monster.

An important aspect of Coyote Stories is that each listener is free, in fact encouraged, to reflect upon each story and find the lesson in it. These are some of the lessons I have drawn from these stories:

1) Good intentions and bold action are not enough. We often confuse action with progress. In times of crisis we tend to want to “do something.” Our first or most obvious choice of action can be counter-productive and lead to more serious problems. Careful planning, creativity and marshalling resources turn good intentions into effective outcomes.

2) Persistence pays off. Initial failure need not lead to defeat. We have all seen examples of students, businesses or clients who, having failed, need to be picked up, given some resources and encouraged to try a new approach. This initial failure is natural and not to be treated as an endpoint, but simply another stop along the path. Likewise, we, as service providers, initiate new programs, reach out to new populations or otherwise act boldly with good intentions. Often with little success. Coyote stories remind us to learn from failure, get assistance and try to come up with a better plan.

3) Each one of us is sometimes Fox and sometimes Coyote. Within each of us, and our organizations, live both Fox and Coyote. We tend to see our organizations as always playing Fox, the helper. But we are sometimes Coyote; acting boldly, making mistakes and not getting expected results. We often need assistance to plan creative approaches to solve existing problems. This is just part of the process.

Certainly, in my career I have helped many Coyotes, students who failed a class, or entrepreneurs who can’t pay the bills. But I have often relied on the assistance of organizations like the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, American Indian College Fund and American Indian Graduate Center to be Brother Fox.

An alumnus of the Gonzaga University MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurship (MBA-AIE) program, Keith Rennie (Citizen Potawatomi Nation) taught business at Salish Kootenai College. He chaired the Business Department until 2017 when he launched his business, Brother Fox Consulting. He lives and works on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana.

New Camp Reaches Indigenous High School Students

Dalhousie University’s Indigenous Health Program works with school boards and organizations (including the Johnson Scholarship Foundation) to increase recruitment and retention of Indigenous students into medicine. As part of the program, the first Kitpu Wise camp was offered this spring in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Student wearing a mask and working on a disk

Students gained experience in the medical field during the Kitpu Wise camp. Photo courtesy of Dalhousie University.

The camp focused on learning about health careers and postsecondary life while meeting new friends and having fun. Students aged 15-18 spent a week on campus receiving hands-on exposure to clinical health education programs and cultural experiences.

The students also met the incoming Dalhousie University student union president who is the first Indigenous (Mi’kmaq) student to hold this position. In addition, the students presented handmade drums to the Deans of Medicine, Dentistry and Health.

Here is what student Kayla Steeves had to say about the week she spent learning about health:

In March 2018, I spent a week in Halifax attending the Kitpu Wise camp. It was one of the most influential and fun encounters that I have had the pleasure of experiencing as a high school student. I met a wonderful group of students and faculty, participated in intriguing activities, and learned amazing things.

Students making drums using traditional methods

Students also enjoyed cultural experiences, such as making drums using traditional methods. Photo courtesy of Dalhousie University.

Throughout the week, we did activities that taught us more about our Indigenous heritage, as well as aspects of the medical field. We made drums, shadowed a dentist during a real appointment with a patient, filled a cavity on false teeth in the dental simulation lab, as well as completed a certified first aid course.

My personal favorite activity was shadowing a last year dental student. I observed the interactions between a physician and patient, as well as viewed the techniques used to solve the issue. It was a different and fascinating view into what a job in the medical field would look like.

The information I have taken away from attending Kitpu Wise are resources and facts that I will forever hold onto. I cannot thank enough the brilliant people who put this program together for the knowledge and opportunities they have gifted me.

Kayla Steeves is a grade 12 student who participated in the Kitpu Wise camp in Halifax, Nova Scotia, during her March break. She will be joining Dalhousie University in September 2018.

Investing in Indigenous Business in Canada: Key Opportunities and Challenges

Aboriginal business opportunities are arising at a revolutionary rate but the capacity (knowledge and experience) to take advantage of these opportunities is generally acquired on an evolutionary and generational basis. How do we reconcile the two?

Challenges

  1. Joint Venture Partnerships with domain-experienced companies can be one way to overcome capacity challenges allowing Aboriginal companies to take advantage of opportunities more immediately and the other joint venture partner to access business on a preferential basis. CAPE Fund (a grantee partner of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation) has found that at least in our country, Corporate Canada has been slow to react to these opportunities and when they do emerge, they are structured to flow cash to Indigenous communities with little opportunity for the transfer of business knowledge and the creation of Aboriginal employment.
  2. Cape LogoIn modern society, business is supported by a complex “ecosystem” which includes access to knowledgeable capital from a variety of sources, a well-educated and trained labor force, experienced management and governance resources and advanced infrastructure (IT, transport, power, water, education, health care, etc.). These are not a “given” in most Indigenous communities.
  3. Politics play a great role in the affairs of Indigenous communities. While many communities make great efforts to separate business and politics by establishing appropriate governance structures, the temptation to mix the two frequently leads to bad or uninformed decisions negatively affecting business. These complications are avoided when we invest in Aboriginal entrepreneurs as opposed to community-related businesses.
  4. For generations, Canadian federal law has encouraged the creation of structures, which encourage dependency and foster dysfunctionality in Indigenous communities. One example of this is the two-year election cycle mandated by the Indian Act for most First Nations’ chiefs and councils. When a First Nations elder was asked by a CAPE representative if a particular Nation would be committed to a project requiring five to 10 years of development and millions of dollars of investment, the response was “Yes, but can we abandon the project in two years if a new Chief is elected?”

Opportunities

  1. Aboriginal youth represent the fastest growing demographic in Canada. Over 50 percent of Indigenous people in Canada are under the age of 25.
  2. Canada is facing a labor shortage, which is forecast to worsen in coming years.
  3. It is now a legal obligation for corporations to consult and, where possible, accommodate our Indigenous peoples when their traditional territories are to be impacted by commercial development. This has given rise to impact/benefit agreements negotiated between developers and our Indigenous peoples, designed to mitigate environmental impacts and provide economic benefits including jobs, Native business creation and profit sharing.
  4. Sean Manitobah MukluksThe rise of successful Aboriginal business and Aboriginal entrepreneurs can lead to the creation of role models who can inspire and motivate Indigenous youth to stay in school, work hard, pursue an education in business and become productive members of their communities and Canadian society in general. One example of such an entrepreneur is Sean McCormick, CEO of Manitobah Mukluks, one of our most successful investments.

We are seeing the emergence of a number of successful Indigenous businesses in Canada, notwithstanding enormous challenges faced by our Indigenous peoples brought on by almost a half of a millennium of marginalization and abuse. Ultimately our goal should be to assist our Aboriginal brothers and sisters to find justice and substantially improve the quality of their lives in all respects. Business creation and growth is only one piece of a great puzzle representing the true holistic solution required. It is, nevertheless, an important vehicle for our Indigenous peoples to generate the wealth necessary to improve quality of life and provide meaningful employment opportunities for their benefit as well as our country’s at large.

Peter Forton is Managing Director of CAPE Fund (Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship), a $50 million, socially responsible investment fund, established to encourage Aboriginal entrepreneurship and capacity building in Canada. The Fund is the vision of former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and his son David and is backed by 18 of Canada’s leading corporations as well as three international foundations.

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.

How AIBL Challenges and Inspires Native Business Students

American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL) was organized in January 1994 and was recognized as a 501(c)(3) organization in 1995 on the University of Montana campus in Missoula, Montana. Michelle Henderson (Assiniboine) was a graduate student in the MBA program and wrote her thesis on AIBL. She approached School of Business Administration Dean Dr. Larry Gianchetta to be the chair of her thesis committee. The original idea evolved from concerns expressed by many tribal leaders that recognized the need for business educated and business experienced tribal members to assist with tribal economic development. Michelle became the first executive director of the AIBL organization, and Larry became the faculty advisor to the University of Montana AIBL Chapter.

American Indian Business Leaders black and gold logoThe mission of AIBL is to increase the representation of American Indians and Alaska Natives in business and entrepreneurial ventures through education and leadership development opportunities.

AIBL’s vision is to become the preeminent national nonprofit organization serving American Indians and Alaska Natives by providing business and entrepreneurship education, leadership development training, and the necessary support to help young men and women who aspire to purse studies and careers in business, entrepreneurship, or related disciplines.

Today, AIBL has student chapters throughout the United States, and the chapters fall into three categories: High School, Tribal Colleges, and Universities.  Each of the chapters has a least one faculty advisor. Faculty advisors and student members can go to the AIBL website (www.aibl.org)  and click on chapters to find all the resources necessary to organize and run chapter meetings.  Each year the primary focus for the student chapters is the Annual Leadership Conference. This year our annual Leadership Conference will be April 26-28 at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, Arizona (more details on the conference can be found on the AIBL website).

The Leadership Conference has students going to learning sessions in career development, personal development, networking, etc. Many of the corporate sponsors will be attending the conference and will be available to discuss both internships and career opportunities. We also have many sponsors interested in our AIBL students, representing well-known Indian owned businesses who have both internships and career opportunities for students. Students participate in competitions such as Business Plans and Chapter of the Year. Members of the National Board of Directors are located across the U.S. and come from industry and education. They are dedicated to the mission and vision of AIBL and will all be available at the annual Leadership Conference.

Students participate in the general session of the 2017 American Indian Business Leaders annual conference.Finally, go the AIBL website and click on conferences. You will see the students involved in all of the activities available to them engaged in life-changing experiences. You will also see the remarkable speakers that come to present at the AIBL conference. A large part of the AIBL experience throughout the academic year is the fundraising students do to pay their way to the conference, as well as preparing to do very well individually and as a chapter in the competitive events. Each year we ask a few of our AIBL alumni to come back to the Leadership Conference and share with the students what impact AIBL has had on their lives. This is always a very powerful experience for our current AIBL students!

If you have any questions, please contact AIBL Executive Director Prairie Bighorn at prairie.bighorn@aibl.org.

 

What is an ‘Indian Giver?’

Do you remember during your childhood when someone gave you something but then took it back? The person might have been called an “Indian giver.”

Horses in a field with sunsetThe term was always hurtful for me because I knew firsthand the generosity of American Indian people. At our ceremonies, it has always been a custom to have what we call “giveaways,” a tradition of honoring and respecting others by the giving of gifts ranging from blankets to horses.  Leaders were chosen in our society by how much they gave away to the people, not by how much they owned. It is a high honor to share with others.

The term “Indian giver” originated in the pre-Colonial land transactions involving the entrepreneurial Dutch and Indian landowners. The Dutch had learned to manufacture wampum — small shells used as currency and jewelry among Indian tribes — that was used for land trades. The land was then broken up and the titles were later sold in Europe to future settlers.

Native American wampum money artUpon arrival, the new settlers found Indians unwilling to honor the contracts because they believed that the transactions were only valid with the person involved in the original purchase. They were trying to do the honorable thing.

It was from these confusing first transactions that Europeans came to believe that Indians could not be trusted and therefore forced them from their lands. The Indians were merely trying to maintain the integrity of the original transaction. Hence the term “Indian giver.”

I have never known of an Indian person to give someone a gift and then take it back. All my life I have only seen generosity from people who had very little in the way of material possessions.

Indians gave the ultimate gift to Europeans: their land, which holds vast natural resources that include oil, coal, timber, minerals, water rights and rich farmland. Yet today, American Indians are some of the poorest people in America.

Native American Heritage month logoNational philanthropic support for American Indians falls far short of what is needed. American Indians languish in some of the most remote, untenable areas in the country, where poverty and despair are common. Less than 1 percent of all charitable giving goes to support Indian causes.

The term “Indian giver” is a misnomer. In our community, giving is a way of life … and always will be.

What are your plans to give this year? Natural disasters have decimated entire islands like Puerto Rico and the need to help has never been greater. Pick a good sound organization and give and then give some more.

Richard B. Williams (Oglala Lakota/Northern Cheyenne) is a passionate and committed advocate and fierce champion of Native education in the United States. From 1997-2012, he served as president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, a national non-profit scholarship fundraising organization for American Indian students attending tribal colleges and universities which provide culturally based education and are run by the tribes. He presently serves as Indigenous Peoples Programs Consultant for the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.