Poor Little Rich Indians

Nov 15th, 1994 | By | Category: 6-3: Philanthropy, Editor's Essay
By Paul Boyer

The federal government’s responsibility to American Indian reservations is clear.  But what role should philanthropy play? Do foundations have the same commitment to Native American communities? Recent studies suggest that they do not.

A report from the Foundation Center, for example, found that between 1989 and 1992, support for native American projects by the 960 largest foundations accounted for between just .5 and .8 percent of all grants awarded.

When grants to non-Native organizations (such as museums sponsoring a special American Indian exhibit) are eliminated from this list, the figure would be far smaller. In fact, a study of 400 foundations by Native Americans in Philanthropy found that between 1984 and 1989 foundation grants to Native American causes reflected only .0018 percent of total giving.

Why, if the needs of Indian communities are well documented and well known, do so few dollars go to American Indian organizations and reservations? Experts in the field of Indian philanthropy often site three key misperceptions as barriers to giving:

Indians are too rich: The explosive growth in reservation casinos has created a unique public relations problem for America’s Indian communities—the perception of wealth. While Indians, as a group, are still the poorest in the nation, the approximately 100 tribally-run casinos across the United States generate images of Las Vegas-style glitter and money.

For a handful of tribal groups, the comparison is accurate. The tiny Mashantucket Pequot tribe of Connecticut, for example, has built what may be the largest casino in the western hemisphere. Located near several major cities, and lacking nearby competition, thousands of gamblers arrive daily, bringing money into the tribe and its approximately 300 members.

This highly publicized success story may give the impression that all reservations do, or can, generate similar wealth. However, unlike the Pequots, most tribes are located in rural and poor communities. Their casinos will never bring in the same number of visitors with deep pockets. Also unlike the Pequots, most tribes have significantly higher enrollments and a broader range of social needs.  The revenue their casinos do generate becomes only a valuable supplement, not a cure-all.

In addition, for every tribe that has a casino, four do not, either because they oppose gaming or because they are unable to negotiate a satisfactory gaming compact with their state—a federal requirement. Tribes without casinos do not receive any money from those that do, just as the gaming revenue generated by one state is not shared with another state.

Indians are too poor: Alternately, giving to Indians is also hampered by a sense of despair. The problems are so bad, they seem unsolvable.

While Indians have been the target of giving, in some form, since the first years of European contact, the status of Indians remains discouraging. In many ways, Indian societies look and feel more like Third World countries. It is tempting—and appropriate—to ask if there is any reason to hope for a better future after 400 years of effort.

For most of America’s history, however, there was no attempt to improve the status of Indian societies. Indeed, a kind of reverse philanthropy was practiced; all energy was focused on eliminating, not sup­porting, their culture and communi­ties. Most programs for American Indians from the seventeenth to the mid twentieth centuries believed assimilation and Christianization were necessary goals. Efforts to sup­port Native society were dismissed as counterproductive. Some even felt the Indians’ slide into abject poverty was necessary, since it would encour­age them to abandon old ways and blend into white society.

Only in the last half of this centu­ry has any significant effort been made to acknowledge the desires of American Indians living on reserva­tions and to address their need for better housing, health, community- based education, and economic development. And only now are Indians truly becoming partners in this process. While Indians have been offered charity for centuries, the true meaning of philanthropy is at last being practiced in reservation communities.

And the impact of this partnership is beginning to show. The growth of tribal colleges, along with other health and education programs pro­filed in this issue, demonstrate that support from foundation, corpora­tions and individuals do make a dif­ference. Many needs remain unaddressed, but there is reason for hope.

Indian issues are too complicated: Finally, there is fear of involvement. Indian culture is poorly understood and the complex relationship between tribal, state, and federal government appears Byzantine. “Lack of understanding brings fear of doing the wrong thing, so they [foundations] don’t do any- thing,” says Donna Chavis of Native Americans in Philanthropy. And if a foundation has had a bad experience in the past, they may leave for good.

This fear is accentuated by a sense of alienation.  It is accepted as gospel that “funders fund people, not projects.” If a foundation feels good about the talents and sincerity of the people requesting a grant, then they are more likely to feel good about the project itself. But many foundations have not reached out to reservation communities to learn about their needs and identify talented individuals. Likewise, the isolation and inexperience of American Indians has kept them from extending a confident hand out to foundations. This failure to actively bridge the gap and build personal relationships must be acknowledged.

Again, progress is being made. Some foundations are reaching out, as are a growing number of American Indians. The tribal col­leges, especially, serve as a conduit of information in both directions.

Clearly, American Indians also have a necessary role to play.  First, they must explain their needs to foundations. “In philanthropy, we are always doing Indian 101,” says Chavis, “even among some of the most enlightened people.” But they must also become students of philan­thropy, taking the time to understand the culture and expectations of the foundation world.

But the future of giving for Indians is, ultimately, determined by those with the cash. As one long-time observer said of foundations, “It’s their money. They can do whatever they want with it.” But without question, foundations, and individual givers, want to do good—they want to see their money go where it’s needed and can make a difference. As much as ever, Indian communities demonstrate great need and, increasingly, offer opportunities for cooperation.

Paul Boyer is editor 0f Tribal College.

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