Native Americans make up approximately 3% of the population, yet receive just 0.4% of philanthropic funding.

“Native peoples have solutions but don’t often have the support,” said Carly Bad Heart Bull, executive director of the Native Ways Federation, at the 2023 We Give Summit.

The session, We Have the Solutions: The Importance of Funding Native-led Efforts, also included insights from Wayne Ducheneaux, executive director of the Native Governance Center, Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive and attorney at the Association on American Indian Affairs, and Ray Foxworth from the Henry Luce Foundation.

In order to better support Native-led solutions, Ducheneaux encouraged donors to gain a much deeper understanding of Native history in the U.S.

“Non-native folks need to ground themselves in truth,” Ducheneaux said. “In truth is where you can have reconciliation … Non-Native people must realize that your right to occupy space on this continent does not come from United States sovereignty. Your right to occupy space in this country comes from tribal sovereignty. The resources that foundations control come from tribal sovereignty. Whether through a treaty on cessation or outright theft of those things …To actively support Native nations, you have to make an effort to understand this.” 

Here are some key recommendations on how philanthropy can improve and increase its support for Native communities and their efforts: 

Honor traditional wisdom. Philanthropy should rely on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), which O’Loughlin described as a “a body of observations, oral and written knowledge, innovations, practices, beliefs that promote sustainability and the responsible stewardship of cultural heritage and natural resources through relationships between humans and their ecosystem.” 

She added, “It’s estimated that currently, at the global scale, Indigenous peoples in long-standing, place-based communities manage over 24% of the land, which contains approximately 40% of all ecologically intact landscapes and protected areas left on the planet, and 80% of the world's biodiversity. In short, evidence suggests that the most intact ecosystems on the planet rest in the hands of people who have remained close to nature.” 

Include Native people in solution-building, staffing, and leading Indigenous programming.

“In order to actively support Native nations, maybe instead of inviting Native people to your 25th floor, glass window boardroom to present to you about issues they're facing, you get some folding tables and chairs down in an Indigenous community, and you sit around a table together. And instead of offering that one or two spaces in your boardroom, you make space for a community to join you at the table within their community,” said Ducheneaux.  

Foxworth pointed out that the data on Native inclusion in philanthropy is dismal. He pointed to research that revealed the same number of Native individuals work in philanthropy now compared to 2015, which is less than 1%. 

“The solutions for Indian Country issues are there,” said Ducheneaux. “It's about access to resources and creating and building that capacity. We're long past the time that we bring in Indian folks to open up events with prayers. If you're not going to include Native people in your programming, where Native folks are working in every one of those sectors, don't bother coming, right? You need to show up, and you need to listen …True solidarity is about listening deeply.”

Take action now. Despite years-long conversations about expanding DEI efforts in philanthropy and the events of 2020, there has been little movement in terms of advancing support for Native nations. 

“The big recommendation for how philanthropy can do better is to stop talking about DEI and invest and prioritize Native communities,” Foxworth said. “We need action, not conversation … We know the work is going to be ongoing. The work to preserve Native life, land, and sovereignty has been ongoing since first contact with European colonizers, and that will continue.” 

Bad Heart Bull added, “We're always in a moment, right? And moments are fleeting. And where's the accountability in that? … When we think about the under-resourcing of our communities, we're doing all of this incredible work. Now, imagine if we had those resources that we desperately need. Imagine what we could accomplish if we thought about this for the long term, and not just as a moment in time.”