Photo provided by NDN Collective/Willi White.

As NPQ has widely covered, including in series co-curated with the First Nations Development Institute, Native America is rising. This can be seen in politics, in rising activism, in new partnerships in philanthropy, in journalism, and above all culturally.

Recently, I interviewed Nick Tilsen, cofounder of the NDN Collective. The name “NDN” is intentionally designed to be ambiguous—the “D” stands for defend, develop, and decolonize. The multiple meanings are matched by the group’s multiple goals. Tilsen notes that the NDN Collective combines many tools into a family of organizations. This includes advocacy, grantmaking, and social enterprise arms. The social enterprise arm, for example, includes a landowning company, so that NDN pays rent to itself, “using it as a way to create long-term sustainability,” as Tilsen explains.

NDN has grown rapidly. Founded in 2018, in 30 months the group has raised $37 million. Tilsen says that the group has about 80,000 individual donors, who provided about 20 percent of NDN’s total funding, with the rest mainly coming from institutional philanthropy.

Recently, NDN got a $12 million grant from Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund. Tilsen said that NDN was a last-minute addition to the list and came only after others in the field called out Bezos for largely excluding Indian Country.

“Indigenous people were sort of an afterthought,” Tilsen notes. He adds, “Hey, we’re grateful, but we are not going to change anything we are doing. We are a community self-determination group that gives out $100,000 grants. We can use it for our theory of change and connect it to climate, but we are not going to be muzzled. We are going to be Indigenous.”

Tilsen explains that NDN aims to grow to provide $50 million in grants a year. “That puts us as the largest funder of Indigenous people in the field,” notes Tilsen, and puts NDN in the position of leading the field of Indigenous philanthropy, thereby impacting the funding practices of other philanthropies.

NDN’s vision for economic justice, Tilsen explains, builds on the group’s values and principles of the interconnectedness of all things, indigenous self-determination, and equity and justice for all people and the planet. Tilsen adds that the group seeks to realize those values through actions corresponding with the three meanings of the “D” in its name—defend, develop, and decolonize.

As Tilsen explains, “Our theory of change is to defend air, land, and water rights in the community; a third of our work is going to that. Develop means to support inclusive regenerative economies that strengthen community wealth. Decolonization means support for Indigenous languages, ceremonies, lifeways, and political decision-making structures.”

In a position paper authored by Dr. PennElys Droz (Anishinaabe/Wyandot) and published by NDN, titled Mobilizing an Indigenous Green New Deal, Droz writes that, “The NDN Collective was established to scale impact in Indigenous territories and to build the capacity of our communities to develop Indigenous-led, sustainable projects that are in alignment with Indigenous values. We understand that our Nations hold powerful visions, strategy, and have been taking action to create new worlds that can be models of resilience and equity…”

Tilsen also sees NDN’s work as impacting the world far beyond Indian Country:

We believe that when you invest in the self-determination of indigenous people who are doing the work of defend, develop, and decolonize, not only does it change the indigenous people, it [also] creates a just and more equitable Earth for all people. It is one of our fundamental strategies. Philanthropy has never worked for indigenous people ever. It is questionable if philanthropy is successful in solving any problem. We aim to shift decision-making power into BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] institutions that have lived experience of doing the work.

Tilsen has been in the news a lot lately. He was among 150 people at a protest to call attention to the offensive staging of a July 4th rally held by Donald Trump for his presidential reelection campaign at Mount Rushmore, a place that’s home to a memorial to four presidents “etched in stone on what American Indian nations consider to be sacred stolen land,” as NPQ’s Sofia Jarrin pointedly notes. Tilsen is the only person from the protest who faces felony charges, allegedly for taking a shield from an officer. Tilsen says he was standing at a peaceful protest along with his people. More than 18,000 people have signed a petition demanding that charges be dropped. Tilsen adds, “My position is that all of these charges are bullshit. It is political targeting. Part of our purpose is to dismantle of white supremacy. The reality is that people are afraid of progress. But we’re not going to let it affect our work.”

The Struggle for Self-Determination

The scope of Indian Country is vast. As Droz reminds us, “There are 573 recognized and many more unrecognized Indigenous nations solely within the nation-state of the United States, holding 56.2 million acres in trust.” For years, Tilsen focused on his own Oglala Lakota community in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. In 2007, Tilsen was part of a group of Native youth who founded the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation. As those efforts achieved success, including the development of 21 new homes as part of a broader master plan for sustainable development called Oyate Omniciye (Circle Meetings of the People), the small organization became a bit of a magnet.

As Tilsen explains, the group “started to get a lot of phone calls from tribal leaders.” Tilsen estimates that 43 different tribes and 70 Indigenous communities contacted him. Tilsen relates that the people said they wanted to do similar things within the culture, climate, and spirit of the places where they reside.

Tilsen notes that at the time the response of Thunder Valley was simple. “First, we barely pulled this off,” Tilsen recalls. The second thing Tilsen advised was to acknowledge the group’s many errors, which he summarizes as “don’t do what we did.” Tilsen observes, “We wanted to help, but we had very little capacity.”

Scale, Tilsen notes, is “always a controversial thing. I looked at the data of the lack of philanthropic investment of people and the trajectory Thunder Valley came from. It felt like it was becoming an exception.” The money Thunder Valley was raising, he decided, wasn’t based on an increase in new dollars, but rather was coming at the expense of other valuable efforts.

Tilsen observes that there was need to “make an intervention that changes the environment, and the way indigenous self-determination is invested into. We need a mechanism at the level that has never been invested in in the history of philanthropy. It was about changing the conditions [into] which indigenous leaders and self-determination was invested to create an ecosystem organization and a movement infrastructure organization and put out large-scale funding.”

For its grants, NDN has insisted on only supporting Indigenous-led efforts, defined as having boards that are 100-percent Indigenous and staff that are at least 70-percent Indigenous. These rules, Tilsen notes, are in response to a history of the philanthropy supporting outside groups serving indigenous people and failing to fund Indigenous-led work. In its grants, such as its community self-determination program, NDN is committed to making six-figure grants and hopes to eventually raise enough funds to provide multi-year general operating support. The goal, Tilsen notes, is to provide flexible resources that allow Native communities to leverage additional resources.

An Economic Vision Rooted in the Land

This fall, NDN launched its Land Back campaign. But as Tilsen explains, the #LandBack movement did not start with NDN. “The important thing to note is that land back is a movement. Nobody controls a movement…when you say ‘land back’ to Indigenous people—it doesn’t just mean physical land back, although it does, but it also means reclaiming many things that were taken from our people.”

The origins of “land back” as a phrase, Tilsen explains, began with culture bearers and artists. “About 10 years ago, you started to see land back artwork.” Then, Tilsen adds, “the relatives in Canada took some of those concepts through hashtags and memes. They popularized an idea from indigenous arts that was popping up organically.” Tilsen likens it to a metanarrative like #BlackLivesMatter. “For Indigenous people, it is ‘#LandBack.’ If we are going to enter into a place of repair, we are not going to just talk about reform in the system; there has to be a conversation of getting Indigenous land back into Indigenous hands,” Tilsen explains.

Implementing the Vision amid COVID-19

Tilsen notes that NDN’s role is “to connect, amplify, resource, and politicize the growing land bank.” With COVID-19, NDN’s grantmaking has had two phases. The first phase “was really focused on mutual aid, hyper-focused on mutual aid,” Tilsen explains. “I know there is conversation about a CARES Act, but we know how government works….It will be a long time for that money to hit Indian Country.”

Phase 2 occurred after the CARES money arrived and focused on community self-determination. “It is about investing in solar and wind,” Tilsen begins. Other areas of focus are water access and food sovereignty; helping support Native American nations to “grow their own food, infrastructure, local and regional food systems; and democratized energy systems.”

When asked to provide examples of work in communities, Tilsen called attention to a couple of projects in the Navajo nation. “One of the organizations is Native Renewables, led by Wahleah Johns. Her company is focused on the development of off-grid systems and creating an off-grid financing mechanism. There are 15,000 people without power there. Another one is Navajo Power, which is a for-profit company, Brett Isaac leads it. It is a for-profit company that is looking at utility-scale development on Navajo land.”

“One of the things that NDN Collective is interested in,” Tilsen explains “is having an ecosystem approach. It is not an either-or thing. Let’s invest in off-grid and utility-scale stuff, so there is an economic impact. These different approaches collectively shift from coal-based power into renewable energy. Also make sure that Indigenous people on the ground aren’t colonized by the solar power industry.”

Building the Movement

When assessing the state of the Native American movement in the US, Tilsen notes that it is a mixed bag. Are Native nations full of innovative community-building initiatives? Absolutely. Does colonialism still result in high poverty levels and poor health care? Unfortunately, that is still true as well.

And then there is the issue of continued invisibility. “When this country starts to have these conversations about a reckoning of its past, reparations, and healing, the vast majority of people want to overlook the fact that Indigenous people are still here.”

One notable example of this continuing erasure came election season, when CNN saw fit to report the votes of Native Americans as “something else.” Tilsen observes, “It’s crazy. In the 21st century. In an election in which Native people showed up in historic numbers, directly contributing to Biden’s victory, especially in Arizona…we have still a huge uphill battle.”

In terms of the economy, Tilsen notes that many Native communities remain “deeply under attack by extractive industries and fossil fuel industries, and most of those fights are invisibilized.” In other words, for every Standing Rock that makes it into the press, there may be ten other struggles that don’t.

And, as Droz points out in her report, many of these resource disputes occur in so-called clean, green industries, too. Hydropower may be a renewable source of power, but this does not mean that Native communities have not regularly gotten the short end of the stick in these projects. Droz recites some of the history:

The Columbia River in Oregon and Washington was dammed, submerging virtually all of the Indigenous fishing sites, traditional villages, and camp areas, damaging the fish population. The Klamath River Dams in Oregon and California destroyed the salmon run that the upper river Tribes depended upon for physical and spiritual sustenance and submerged land. The aftermath is the current struggle of the lower Klamath salmon to survive, which deeply impacts the Klamath, Yurok, Tolowa, and Hupa people. The damming of the Missouri River in the Dakotas affected 23 reservations by submerging thousands of acres of land, evicting communities, destroying Native croplands, orchards, burial grounds, and ceremonial sites. The damming of the Alleghany River in New York and Pennsylvania flooded a third of the Seneca people’s landbase.

But Droz adds that an Indigenous-aligned Green New Deal is possible. As Droz points out, “In other countries, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, governments are already exploring programs that restore lands and jurisdiction to Indigenous peoples to protect ancestral territories and meet climate targets. Decarbonization and decolonization can go hand-in-hand.”

Tilsen reflects, “Are we making progress? Absolutely. As Indigenous people are resourced and supported in the right way, we are going to become visible in multiple different sectors and ways for sure.” And Tilsen is optimistic that NDN is solving for the problem that helped lead to its founding—the desire to increase the size of the pot of available resources. “One of the cool things about our approach—about 70 percent of our money that we have raised is new money,” he says. “We didn’t want to just move money; we want to move more money and invite more people and create more access. It is an intervention. Look back five to 10 years from now—you’ll have seen a huge amount of new money that comes in.”