Image from the Hopi Foundation.

This is the second in a series concerning the impact of COVID-19 on the Native American community. Read the first part here.

Eileen Egan has 20 years’ experience working with philanthropy and nonprofits. A member of the Hopi tribe, she has worked with universities, hospitals, and more. She has a succinct message for nonprofits wishing to aid Native American groups: “The only way to really understand is to directly invest in those communities.”

You’d think that would be common sense, but it is not common practice. NPQ has spoken frequently with Edgar Villanueva, whose book Decolonizing Wealth outlines the ways that wealth extracted from indigenous communities is inequitably distributed by philanthropy. Scarcity mentalities and skepticism have soured relationships between philanthropy and Native groups, and that’s hurting communities right now. Raymond Foxworth (Navajo), from First Nations Development Institute, said, “I think it’s a bit insulting to actually say in a crisis is when we’re going to listen to you. Why not listen to communities in normal times?”

Foxworth explained, “Almost all of the money that goes to Native communities is program restricted. So they don’t have cash reserves, or a lot of unrestricted funds. They just don’t have the resources to be able to pivot or sort of change direction aside from the programmatic grounds they have.” That’s obviously a huge weakness when it comes to COVID response.

Robert Lilligren, President & CEO of the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI), said, “We need to be setting our community and our people up to succeed in whatever the next reality looks like. If you just support people to the level of subsistence without a view toward thriving in the future, then we’re actually going to lose ground through the pandemic response. But if we’re being strategic about investments so they’re setting people up on a path toward health, wealth, education, beyond the pandemic, then these are investments that can yield into the future.

Communities have been strategizing to protect their citizens, capitalizing on the resilience that is such a deep shared asset. Recently, NPQ looked at the impact of COVID-19 in Indian Country and how organizations have relied on their habits of creative adaption.

“The good medicine of our culture is what’s going to keep us alive,” said Faith Spotted Eagle (Yankton Sioux), speaking on a panel with other Native leaders. She described the ways in which her community had stepped up to provide for itself in this crisis, but noted that healthcare providers have not stepped up in the same way—Indian Health Services (HIS) doesn’t have the resources for it. Testing and emergency or preventative healthcare are scarce in Indian Country. Basically, she said, “you have to be dying or break a limb in order to get healthcare up front.”

Monica Nuvamsa, executive director of Hopi Foundation, was able to speak to both the difficulties presented by inadequate Native healthcare and the ways in which Native nonprofits are under-resourced to cope with gaps in basic needs. Hopi Foundation is separate from the Hopi tribal government, but they have been coordinating on COVID response. Tribal governments are eligible to receive tax-deductible donations, but many philanthropic entities are more comfortable donating to an organization with a familiar structure, like a foundation.

“The Hopi tribe had some really good foresight to determine a philanthropic partner early on in this process,” said Nuvamsa. “We’ve been really fortunate as a community that the Hopi Foundation has been long established here in the villages.”

That established relationship is critical to working with Hopi and other Native communities, whose trust has been violated in the past. One of Hopi Foundation’s biggest struggles in responding to COVID is the need for data collection.

“There’s a history about that,” said Nuvamsa. “Native people have dealt with a lot of invasive research. Hopi in particular is one of the most researched tribes in the country…a lot of recent examples [show] how research has negatively impacted tribes…There was a lot of taking of data and we never saw any benefit as a community for providing that information…we’ve gotten to this point of being very skeptical about how data is collected and distributed.”

Nuvamsa is genuinely worried about her small community, and scrambling to standardize data reporting takes time away from responding to their very real needs. Hopi is a small community of 10,000 people, landlocked by the much larger Navajo nation. They have an ambulatory care center run by IHS, but anyone needing critical care gets flown to Flagstaff or Phoenix by helicopter—clearly an insufficient system for a problem like COVID. Nuvamsa estimated the infection rate on Hopi to be around 40 percent, and “that could easily wipe us out.”

As a small community, the Hopi have had trouble attracting philanthropic resources. “Funders often want to look at impact, and impact equals numbers, and we don’t have that,” she said. “We’re one of the nation’s longest-standing cultural communities that retain all of the knowledge that we’ve kept for many generations. We’ve never been displaced; we have so much to lose.”

Not only is she working to overcome skepticism about data collection, but because the scale of this crisis is unprecedented in the foundation’s lifetime, Nuvamsa is spending a lot of time developing the structures and procedures necessary to work in larger-scale philanthropy. She’s triaging donations, “making sure that we’re providing due diligence, relationship management to our donors and our funding partners,” tracking donations and reporting back to donors—then teaching best practices to her partners in the tribal government and trying to ensure end-to-end accountability.

The Hopi, like other Native communities, aren’t relying on philanthropy alone to save them. They retain memories of past pandemics and have developed resilient, independent systems to sustain themselves—systems that need resources, but that are Native-developed, Native-run assets.

“We’re not asking philanthropy to give us the solutions,” said Nuvamsa. Thanks to the foundation’s micro-grants, Hopi farmers are planting squash, corn, and beans that will be ready for harvest by July. They want to have an independent food system “to build further sustainability.” Faith Spotted Eagle and the Yankton Sioux are also “amping up [their] gardens”; they’ve planted over 100 already, thanks to Native communities all over the country who sent seeds for planting.

Lilligren agreed that “we need Native-specific, community-directed solutions to all Native issues.” Lilligren (White Earth Ojibwe) has worked in both government and philanthropy, and his community in Minneapolis has a unique history.

Minneapolis is the birthplace of the American Indian Movement and the capital of a state with a Native lieutenant governor (Peggy Flanagan, also White Earth Ojibwe). In 2018, a homeless encampment crisis spurred conversations with philanthropy about how to engage Native communities. Lilligren said the foundations who got involved have “really been present in the Native community. They asked all the stupid and painful questions, and really built authentic relationships…I would say we’re getting beyond the question of ‘why are Native people in this situation.’ This is an acknowledgement that there are deep foundational causes like colonization, like genocide, like forced assimilation.”

To be clear, that one moment has not solved Minneapolis Native Americans’ issues with philanthropy. On the contrary, Lilligren said, “Foundations’ history of giving to Native organizations is abysmal. And if we look at the indicators that we track to see if communities are getting stronger, healthier, smarter, more affluent, the disparities have not just persisted, they’ve actually grown over decades of significant investment from philanthropy.”

As money and healthcare grow ever scarcer, said Lilligren, “Tribes are hurting, and they are feeling like they’re tremendously under-resourced to respond to the community. Resources are still very scarce even in the urban community. I take an asset-based approach, but we are scrambling, we have service providers that are just redirecting resources so they can help take care of our people because they need to, and they’ll figure out accountability at the end. We’re suffering here as well.”

Thanks to the relationships built after the encampment crisis, some foundations have been able to provide a lifeline. NACDI is an intermediary funder and Lilligren says he heard from some donors, “Our understanding is you will be doing the right thing with this year’s funding and then we’ll figure out what’s next.”

NACDI has indeed already brainstormed several ways to support their community—paying local artists to make masks, hosting an online Native film festival, working with farmers to get food to the community. Foundations who adapted quickly were able to support that work. Lilligren said they told him, “‘We’re a little freaked about moving this quickly, but we’re trying to be more responsive, more adaptive.’ And hats off to them. We have an interesting relationship with our foundation community here… The keystone is really this healing—spiritual healing, physical healing, mental healing, chemical healing. But this spiritual healing piece was primary.”

Villanueva has also described philanthropy’s opportunity to heal communities by investing, partnering, and taking the lead from Native efforts. Spurred by COVID, some funders are taking the right steps.

“There is definitely a shift from the philanthropic community to try to be flexible,” said Nuvamsa, “and I’ve definitely had those conversations…I think that’s always a really good starting point for any good relationship. And the other thing is being able to ask or hear funders ask, ‘What do you need,’ versus being prescriptive off the bat, and eliminating a lot of the bureaucracy so that resources can come to us as quickly as possible.”

Nuvamsa said that her work is driven by the Hopi value of Sumi’nangwa, “a compound word that describes someone’s compelling desire from the heart to come together… Those values have been passed on from generations of older Hopis,” she said. “They understood what that meant, to survive something. And those are values that create civilization and functional, healthy civilization. Those are things that we want to remember during a time of crisis like this.”