Recap from the Road

Being a Good Relative: Engaging with Native Communities

Angie Boone, SAFSF Membership and Development Associate, shares her reflections after attending the 2024 Native Americans in Philanthropy Conference. Sophie Ackoff, Program Manager, Food & Agriculture at the 11th Hour Project, reflects on the launch of the Indigenous Food Systems Community of Practice second cohort.

Angie Boone, SAFSF

As a Citizen of Cherokee Nation and formerly serving in a role with Pinoleville Pomo Nation, it meant a lot to me to be among the over 600 funders, tribal members, Native non-profits, Indigenous artists, and vendors from around the world who gathered at the 2024 Native Americans in Philanthropy Conference in Minneapolis, MN last month. I especially appreciated the conversations around shifting philanthropy practices and approaches to be more accessible to and supportive of Native communities. The sessions asked funders to think about the barriers their foundations face when it comes to funding and deepening engagement with Native Communities. Here are my highlights:


When discussing what it means to “indigenize” philanthropy, Dana Arviso with Common Counsel Foundation’s Native Voices Rising, shared that while “Native people might be new to the philanthropy world, they have been giving since time immemorial. Natives are the original philanthropists. Native people are still grounded in respect, relationships, responsibility, reciprocity, and redistribution. Wealth is not measured by hoarded possessions. It’s measured by what we give away.” This sentiment was echoed in many conversations when discussing what it means to be a good relative and how Indigenous communities have been an example for all of us to embody. Marisol Inzunza from the California Wellness Foundation called out mainstream philanthropy as being transactional and said “we can’t call ourselves racial justice funders and leave Natives behind.” Being left behind seems to be an unfortunate trend, since less than half percent of philanthropic dollars is going to Native communities—and that number has not shifted much in the last 30 years. Brittany Schulman with Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP) advocated for supporting Native communities long-term, not just when it’s popular, and for giving multi-year general operating grants to allocate more time for community-led solutions to take root. If you are unsure on how to fund Native communities, you can start by funding and learning from intermediaries that already do. Indigenous communities are tired of hearing “we don’t have a Native portfolio”.


In the opening plenary, Kitcki Carroll with United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. emphasized that it is “our collective responsibility to hold the US government accountable to its first nations. Everyone that calls themselves an American is a direct beneficiary of the history we are talking about and should want to honor these relationships.” He shared the anecdote that fleas are able to jump a height of 100 times their weight, but if kept in a jar, a flea becomes conditioned to only jump as high as the jar allows. He compared the jar to Indian policy and how it has conditioned Indigenous people to not jump as high or dream as big. This stressed the need to remove the artificial boundaries and barriers that are holding Indigenous communities back and to provide opportunities without the threat of pulling away the funding. Kitcki said “we are not grant recipients. We are nations and deserve to be approached in that manner.”

In the same vein of respect, there were additional lessons and actions that we in philanthropy can take to uplift Native voices including Native representation on our boards and staff, actively recruiting Native people to help us make decisions about grantmaking, and reevaluating our expectations and evaluations for Native awardees. Additionally, grantmakers acknowledged feedback from their grantees who often felt they had to code switch when communicating with the grantor. Recognizing the importance of approaching grantees with humility rather than the notion of being the repositories of the “right” way is key to making philanthropy more accessible. We must examine the arbitrary “rules” of philanthropy and constantly ask ourselves, and others “how can we meet grantees where they are? How can we lower the barriers in the application or reporting processes? Who is not in this applicant pool and why? And provide space for grantees to give honest feedback, that we then use to adjust our practices.


While there has been a movement toward more awareness and engagement with Native communities, philanthropy is still missing the mark. Weary of performative land acknowledgments conference leaders encouraged “wealth acknowledgments” that share the origin story of a foundation’s wealth and the reason behind the foundation’s commitments. The complicated history of philanthropy is that, frequently, foundation resources are connected to the accumulation of wealth through extractive practices, including the theft of Indigenous lands, abuse of natural resources, and exploitation of Black labor. Admitting these origin stories can lead to more narrative repair than a performative land acknowledgment could, even further committing to funding Native communities is active repatriation.


The conference explored how philanthropy can support returning ancestral territories back to Indigenous communities, the land’s original stewards. In a session called “Land Return: How Philanthropy is Uniquely Positioned to Support Land Returns”, Ken Lucero with Trust for Public Land shared a striking metaphor to illustrate the experience of land loss for Indigenous people: he compared it to a stolen family heirloom – such as his grandfather’s classic car – that one day reappears at his doorstep when someone tries to sell him this same classic car. Upon telling the salesperson that the vehicle belonged to his grandfather, Ken explains, “They deny that and say “No, it’s mine, I have the title. I’ll sell it to you at a discounted cost but I do still need to use it on certain days of the week.”

Chuck Loring from Penobscot Nation’s Department of Natural Resources shared about the significance of land back projects as they not only regenerate and restore the landscape and ecosystems through Indigenous management, but they also regenerate the people and allow for the revival of ceremonies and traditional ways of life. Panelists advocated how private philanthropy can address current barriers in the land back movement by:

  • revising existing funding mechanisms to honor Tribal sovereignty
  • scaling funding for tribal land acquisition
  • supplying quick capital to buy land when the opportunity arises, where the limited public and private funding mechanisms fall short

This session ultimately called funders to connect directly with tribes, ask their needs, and support them on their journey of pursuing traditional lands.


Also in April 2024, SAFSF, First Nations Development Institute (FNDI) and Melvin Consulting launched the second cohort of the Indigenous Food Systems Community of Practice. The painful reality is that Native communities receive less than one percent of all philanthropic dollars, and only a very small portion of those funds go to Native-led organizations. In recognition of the need for deeper engagement and learning, SAFSF and First Nations Development Institute (FNDI) launched the Indigenous Food Systems Community of Practice (IFS CoP) in 2021. Expertly guided and facilitated by Melvin Consulting PLLC, a Hopi-owned and led firm, the funders spent time exploring the complexity of Indigenous cultures, agriculture, and food, in both historical and present-day contexts through conversations with a variety of Native practitioners. Over the course of the CoP, philanthropic giving from the 15 funders who participated doubled in Indian Country.

The 2nd Community of Practice began in April with 12 new funders on a two-day in-person gathering in the Pueblo of Pojoaque, New Mexico (just north of Santa Fe).

Sophie Ackoff, 11th Hour Project


Sophie Ackoff from The 11th Hour Project shares this reflection on how the experience is impacting her practice as a funder. Republished with permission from The 11th Hour Project.

As part of a community of practice organized by the Sustainable Agriculture and Food SystemFunders and the First Nations Development Institute, I spent three incredible days in Pojoaque, New Mexico learning about Native food sovereignty and Indigenous foodways. The community of practice includes 13 funders committed to learning more about and increasing investments in tribal communities.

On the first night over a dinner of red chili stew, we heard from Michael Roberts and A-dae Romero-Briones from First Nations Development Institute. Michael told us that the amount of money for philanthropy going to Native-led groups is so small it can’t be an accident. He put it this way: if someone gives you change out of their pocket, they’d have to work very hard to cut up a penny into four quarters and then shave off a little more. Native-led organizations only receive .002% of philanthropy funds, and the 11th Hour Project is committed to changing this statistic through our grantmaking, which was formalized in 2022 through our Indigenous Communities program. I hope to help shift this paradigm by increasing my own understanding of Native issues, building relationships with Native non-profits, and growing confidence in how to best center Native issues and leadership in our Food & Agriculture program. After all, regenerative agriculture solutions directly result from Native farmers’ innovations over millennia.

My time in Pojoaque reinforced that agriculture is not a separate activity for Indigenous communities; rather, it is a way of being, of living their culture, of spiritually engaging with the land and the interconnectedness of it all. A-dae shared that while it’s important to talk about things like regenerative agriculture and capturing carbon, it’s also critical to remember that for Indigenous people, agriculture is life; it’s not only a tool for climate mitigation but a necessity for cultural survival. Therefore, we must continue to view our land acquisition projects for Native growers through this dual lens. Without land – rich in history, culture, and sacred sites – the disparate health impacts in Indian Country will persist.

And so it follows that investing in land and agriculture also means investing in language preservation. I had the pleasure of speaking with one of N2’s grantees, Curtis Chavez of the Keres Children’s Learning Center in Cochiti Pueblo (N2 is an 11th Hour Project program that funds organizations, initiatives and movements that enable access and support for youth to thrive through nature and nurture). He talked about the agriculture work at their school as a key way of teaching the language to young students when he explained, “Language is culture and it is learned by doing.”

We applied this ethos at the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute in Santa Clara Pueblo with our host, Roxane Swentzell. For Roxane, an agricultural practice is the study of how we all fit together. The corn is corn not just because you planted it, but also because of the clouds, rain, sun, plants, and animals. The fact that you plant and tend to it is critical, though, as it reflects the reciprocity and symbiosis required to make it all work. The “seeds adapted to our prayers” she says. We learned how to make atole, a traditional blue or red corn drink, by shucking the corn, cleaning the kernels, then grounding and heating the cornmeal with water to produce a delicious and nourishing drink.

Chef Nephi Craig, who is White Mountain Apache Tribe and Diné (and was also featured in the film, “Gather”), spoke about Café Gozhóó, a restaurant and vocational training program at the Rainbow Treatment Center. Operated by the White Mountain Apache tribe, this addiction treatment program has been providing substance abuse intervention and prevention services since 1976. Nephi is the Center’s nutritional recovery program coordinator, using the kitchen to develop therapeutic skills through connection to ancestral foods.

On Wednesday afternoon, we moved from experiential learning to deep conversations with local tribal members and practitioners. We moved through four table topics with different guests, and yet, all of the conversations were interconnected, mirroring the interweaving and interdependence between people and land.

My conversation with Phoebe Suina, a water engineer of the Cochiti Pueblo, also harkened back to Roxane’s concept of co-adaptation and reciprocity. She told us a story about the impact of federal policy and the necessity of the language preservation work happening in her Pueblo. The 1960 Flood Control Act paved the way for the Cochiti Dam, which was completed in 1970 and brought with it devastating consequences for the tribe and its farm fields. With the farm fields flooded, “language was lost because we didn’t use it,” Phoebe explained. There is a clear distinction between the language skills of those who grew up before the dam’s construction and after, demonstrating how farming and cultural development are inextricably linked. Phoebe went on to get her engineering degree and can now predict post-wildfire flooding with better accuracy than other scientists and even radar. Because she can read the clouds.

My biggest “aha moment” came from a conversation with George Toya, who farms for the pueblo of Nambé, and Clayton Brascoupe of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association. While at the National Young Farmers Coalition, I spent many years working on a campaign called “Farming is Public Service;” the idea was that farming is much more than a business – just like libraries and post offices, farming is a service to our communities that needs significant public investment. Through this experience, I realized that this re-framing does not go far enough. Farming is language, culture, and spirituality. The culture it produces is just as life-sustaining as the harvest, and cannot be siloed from life itself.

At the end of the conversations, the guests were prompted to share their asks for funders. I am resharing them here with you all in their words:

  1. Protect Native food sovereignty in your work
  2. All parts of the process need support
  3. Without language, we cease to exist as Cochiti pueblo people. That is how important language is for agriculture, for food sovereignty.
  4. Interconnection—there’s no one area of focus. You are funding a whole system.
  5. Farming is ceremony. It is tied to dances, language. Farming is walking in the footsteps of our ancestors, which brings them back.
  6. We have solutions. We have a future.
  7. Land-based practices help fight climate change.
  8. Recognize the interconnection. Know your strategy. Make it happen.
  9. Fund collaborations.

I’m leaving this community of practice with so many lessons not only on how to fund this work but on how to think of agriculture as something much larger than the work of cultivating food. Agriculture is a tending to the family – not only the human family that will consume the products but also the sun and the clouds and the rain and the plants and animals, too. I’m looking forward to the continued learning and connections that come from this community of practice.


Indigenous Food Systems Community of Practice

  • Watch the recording of a 2021 webinar SAFSF hosted with Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and A-dae Romero-Briones, Vice President, Policy & Research, California Tribal Fund, Nourishing Native Foods & Health: “An Eye-Opening Look at Indigenous Food and Agriculture Systems.”
  • To learn more about the 2021-2022 Indigenous Food Systems Community of Practice experience and the funders’ tangible takeaways, watch the recording of a webinar SAFSF hosted in Fall 2022.
  • Watch the film, Gather (Chef Nephi Craig is featured), made in partnership with First Nations Development Institute
  • To learn more about Chef Craig and his powerful teachings on the connection between historical trauma, behavioral activation of Indigeneity, and cooking, read this article. Keep an eye out for his upcoming book! 
  • For further reading, visit First Nations Development Institute’s Knowledge Center.

Native Americans In Philanthropy

Native Americans In Philanthropy (NAP) Tribal Listening Sessions Report Preview shares initial findings of a nationwide survey NAP conducted to identify funding priorities of Tribal Nations and Native Communities. These funding priorities aim to create a clear roadmap for philanthropic partnerships and investment. You can sign up here to receive a preview of NAP’s initial findings and they’ll release the Tribal Nations Listening Session Report later in 2024.

International Funders for Indigenous Peoples

International Funders for Indigenous Peoples (IFIP) is a global community of funders dedicated to Indigenous Peoples worldwide. They seek to transform the relationship between the funding world and Indigenous Peoples to one of mutual understanding and benefit.  IFIP created the “5 R’s of Indigenous Philanthropy” — Respect, Relationships, Responsibility, Reciprocity, and Redistribution to reframe funding relationships for greater impact. 

Food systems and environmental projects talked about at the conference:

Indigenous media sources and organizations to learn more: