Rebecca Adamson: Rediscovering the Native-American Experience

History, religion, tradition, and culture play powerful roles in Native American approaches to more formal giving. Native Americans now live both with change and tradition in many areas of their lives, including giving practices. Sharing and exchanging gifts are scarcely new to Native Americans; personalized giving is bedrock to their culture. For many, however, large scale, institutional, formalized philanthropy is a new concept, as described in this chapter from ‘Faith and Family Philanthropy.’


The more than 2 million Native Americans who populate this land are unique in any discussion of family philanthropy because they are a people who have always given — even when they had little to give — and have only recently begun to accumulate wealth. In addition, they are both citizens of this nation and of a separate Native American nation within the United States, with their own laws that govern philanthropy.

Although the majority of Native Americans in this country continue to live in poverty, at the dawn of this new millenium, in many cases economic circumstances are improving and Native individuals, families, and tribes are increasingly finding sophisticated ways to save, and allocating portions of those savings, to supporting their communities, their colleges, and Native activities. Native Americans are beginning to explore the benefits of foundations, endowments, and other vehicles of “formal” philanthropy for developing infrastructure, building capacity, and enhancing surrounding environments. And, in the process, they are finding that formal giving practices provide capital for economic development and offer more flexible opportunities than government, thus enabling Native communities to take a stronger position in planning their futures.

An Approach to Giving Steeped in Tradition

History, religion, tradition, and culture play powerful roles in Native American approaches to more formal giving. Once a people who shunned wealth and the trappings of the European model of society, Native Americans are now living both with change and tradition in many areas of their lives, including giving practices. Sharing and exchanging gifts are scarcely new to Native Americans — personalized giving is bedrock to their culture. For many, however, large-scale, institutional, formalized philanthropy is a new concept.

Native Americans approach more formal giving from the perspective of stewardship, rather than of ownership. As trustee of the Ancient Ways of Knowing Foundation and respected corporate leader Gene A. Keluche points out, stewardship is “more in keeping with the reality of our individual and collective lives on this planet.” (By “our,” he means all human beings.) Native American culture seeks reconnection with self, family, community, and nature, and giving practices follow that philosophy.

Spiritual Roots Run Deep In Native America

Faith and philanthropy are synonymous with the indigenous peoples of this nation. Before the European settlers, before their missionaries, and before the religious conversions, Native Americans were a deeply spiritual people who shared what they had, with whomever needed it, whenever it was needed.

Early missionaries branded Native Americans as savages and devil worshipers. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As the 18th century Seneca orator Red Jacket admonished:[1]

We … have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children. It teaches us to be thankful, to be united, and to love one another!

Although individual Native American tribes differed in their religious practices, most believed in an all-knowing, omnipotent being, referred to as the Great Mystery, the Master Spirit, the Great Spirit, or something similar; passed down myths; and prayed to spiritual powers — the sun, the moon, lightning, wind, water, fire, frost. Prayers and gifts to spirits were offered both in thanksgiving and as pleas for help in hunting, war, times of drought, sickness, and other crisis.

Religious observances were often public events accompanied by elaborate feasts, but, as a participant from the 19th century describes:[2]

The worship of the “Great Mystery” was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking…[S]ilent because all speech is of necessity feeble and imperfect…[S]olitary because they believed he was nearer to us in solitude and there were no priests authorized to come between a man and his Maker. None might exhort or confess or in any way meddle with the religious experience of another…[T]here was no preaching, [proselytizing], nor persecution, neither were there any scoffers or atheists.

There were no temples or shrines among us save those of nature…the Indian … would deem it sacrilege to build a house for Him who may be met fact to face in the mysterious, shadowy aisles of the primeval forest…He needs no lesser cathedral!

Interestingly, a surprising number of similarities exist between Native American and European religious tenets. Historian Christine Leigh Heyrman, makes the following comparison: [3]

…many key Indian religious beliefs and practices bore broad but striking resemblances to … early modern Europeans, both Catholic and Protestant. These cultures, too, credited a creation myth (as set forth in Genesis), venerated a Creator God, dreaded a malicious subordinate deity (Lucifer), and looked forward to the individual soul’s immortality in an afterlife superior in every respect to the here and now. They, too, propitiated their deity with prayers and offerings and relied upon a specially trained clergy to sustain their societies during periods of crisis.

Historically, the religious prohibition against the accumulation of wealth sets Native Americans apart. And, although Native American life has changed dramatically over the past five centuries, traditions of sharing have carried from generation-to-generation. For Native Americans, faith and philanthropy have always been the rule of life: [4]

…the love of possessions … appeared a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and temptation….shar[ing] the fruits of his skill and success with his less fortunate brothers…kept his spirit free from the clog of pride, cupidity, or envy, and carried out, as he believed, the divine decree — a matter profoundly important to him.

For five centuries, missionaries — as well as civil authorities — took extraordinary steps both to repress traditional Native beliefs and force conversions to Christian faiths. For the most part, they succeeded. Today, more two-thirds of all Native Americans identify a sector of Christianity as their religious denomination. Still, many have found ways to accommodate both belief systems, combining Christian tenets with Native practices, practicing the faiths in tandem, or some other variation. For most Native Americans, the traditional religious practices of their forebearers are, unfortunately, forever lost.

by Sharon J. Rasmussen and Claude O. Norcott

Native Donors Maintain Traditions

Tradition is more than a way of life for Native Americans; it opens a pathway for how they live their lives. The power of culture and tradition can be seen in how Native American donors typically go about their giving. Recent research finds that Native donors:

  • Prefer to make anonymous, need-based gifts;
  • Respond to personal appeals through family or community;
  • Favor building trust relationships; and
  • Follow a “give-and-receive” model — meaning that the giver will eventually receive a benefit in some form from the gift.

With all kinds of gifts, Native families tend to structure their funds or giving to affirm tribal cultures, build self-esteem — not dependence — and ensure that Indian people control decisionmaking.

Today, the links of Native American giving to Native roots, even in formal approaches, are undergoing change. One reason stems from political activism: giving in Indian Country may differ according to the degree of traditionalism or progressiveness of the community.   Members of Indian Tribes that maintain more traditional lifeways and governance, for example, tend to be more interested in the cultural and spiritual relevance of their gift and its implication for their community. Among these Tribes are the Hopi, Navajo, and Ojibwe communities. In more progressive Tribes, such as the Chickasaw, Umpqua, and Viejas, donors tend to consider more mainstream interests that emphasize education, the arts, and economic development.

The age of the donor and the newness of the donor’s wealth influence giving. The younger the donor, the greater the tendency to seek advice, give incrementally, and target donees carefully. The more recent the acquisition of wealth, the more the donor tends to engage in giving on a gradual basis. The age of the donor and newness of wealth may be helpful predictors because the median age of the American Indian population (26 years old) is below that of the U.S. population as a whole (33 years) and personal giving both on and off Reservations is derived primarily from recent or first-generation wealth.

Understanding Wealth, Poverty, and the Tradition of Giving

The story of Native American entry into formal philanthropy is a story of wealth, poverty, and a long history of giving and sharing. In the beginning, Native Americans inhabited the vast forests and prairies of North America, lands that would generate untold wealth for the Carnegies and Fords and Rockefellers. Native Americans, then and now, measured wealth not in terms of money; they prefer to measure wealth in terms of community standing of an individual, which derives from living an honorable and community-centered life.

In recent decades, profound changes in Indian Country affected Native philanthropy as well as many other areas of Native life. Many Tribes sought and gained self-determination and self-governance, developed new strategies for economic development, and in some cases turned to highly energized entrepreneurship.

New wealth has been generated from coal and other mineral extraction on Reservations (nationwide, Reservations hold 4 percent of U.S. oil and gas reserves, 40 percent of uranium deposits, and 30 percent of Western coal reserves, among other natural resources), from gaming enterprises, and from other commercial undertakings in manufacturing and service industries.

Native business activity lies at the core of the new wealth. The Census Bureau reports that, between 1987 and 1992, the number of businesses owned by American Indians and Alaska Natives increased by 93 percent, that receipts increased by more than 115 percent — from $3.7 billion to $8.1 billion — and that in 1992 more than 80 of the firms owned by American Indians and Alaska Natives were sole proprietorships. Today, about 102,000 businesses are Native-owned — almost five times more than in 1987.

Some Native American ventures, such as the First Nations Development Institute’s Eagle Staff Fund and the Seventh Generation Fund, combine entrepreneurship with philanthropy. Based on ancient traditions of sharing and caring, and drawing on state-of-the-art technology and management practices, these organizations and other capital sources, such as the American Indian Banks, are stimulating Native business activity. As businesses produce jobs and profits, owners and employees are beginning to make use of savings and retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans, which adds another way for more Native Americans to become the stewards of their own wealth.

Relatively few Tribes enjoy all the ingredients needed for financial success, in gaming (location, for example) or other commercial enterprises (natural resources, for example). Thus, in Indian Country as a whole, although conditions are slowly improving, poverty remains deep and pervasive.   About 45 percent of American Indians live in households with incomes below the poverty line. Among Native Americans as a whole, the average unemployment rate is 45 percent and on some Reservations it reaches 90 percent. Of those in the workforce, three-quarters earn less than $7,000 a year. A central hope of expanding formal giving by Native Americans is to spark economic activity in many of these communities.

Special Constitutional Status Is a Major Factor

The constant reminders of poor economic conditions in Indian Country drive Native American tribal and business leaders to apply newly acquired wealth for community self-help and self-determination. But federal law complicates their access to formal mechanisms of philanthropy. Because of their unique status under the U.S. Constitution as sovereign entities, Native American communities constantly deal with two legal and political systems, their own and that of the non-Native world.

Native American individuals, families, and businesses are treated the same as non-Natives for purposes of forming charitable entities such as private or corporate foundations, and are subject to the Internal Revenue Code. Tribal governments, if recognized by the Treasury Department, usually have the choice of proceeding under the Indian Tribal Government Tax Status Act, which reflects the sovereign status of Tribes, or under federal law pertaining to public charities.

Because of the special constitutional status of many Tribes and the relative newness of their use of formal giving mechanisms, many areas of federal law are untested. Indian Tribes and other Native organizations are waging an effort to clarify the legal status of various entities that could be used as philanthropic vehicles.

Fields of Interest Reflect Native Culture

Armed with wealth, knowledgeable about giving options, and ready to make formalized philanthropy work for their own people, Native American family donors are now becoming important funding sources in many Native communities and for many Native causes.

Native American family donors commonly show an interest in certain fields of interest that reflect strong attachment to community: education (scholarships, internships, etc.), cultural preservation, economic development, youth, elderly services, arts, healthcare, and rehabilitation services. The emphasis on education and cultural preservation may reflect an awareness, according to a report by Native Americans in Philanthropy, that “Native donors see children as ‘leaders of tomorrow’ essential to preserving their Native heritage.” Examples include the American Indian College Fund, which solicits from both Native and non-Native individuals, corporations, and foundations to support the 29 Indian tribal colleges.

As for religion, like their ethnic counterparts in other cultures, Native Americans give to religious activities on an informal and individual basis. Much anecdotal evidence supports the view that Native Americans give generously — both in-kind and monetarily — for spiritually based activities, such as feasts, powwows, giveaways, and honorings. In the South and Southwest, a strong network of giving reflects deep ties to the Catholic and Protestant churches, as it does to the Mormon Church elsewhere.

Economic Empowerment Should Increase Philanthropy

As change encounters tradition in Native American life, so it is in Native giving. Native American community and business leaders, families, and individuals are showing great capacity to reconcile change and tradition. An ever widening and deepening pool of donors are developing among families, individuals, and Indian Tribes, and these donors are adapting formalized philanthropy to their own uses. Still, the outlook for continued advances in economic activity is uncertain.   If Native Americans are empowered, through government actions in particular, to continue their entry into businesses, the professions, and other income-producing activities, the trend toward use of formalized philanthropy should advance and even accelerate. Native American donors can also be expected to continue to shape formal giving vehicles and mechanisms to their own use, and that means shaping them to reflect cultural and traditional values in governance, structure, and program delivery.

As Native American leaders and donors become more knowledgeable about formalized philanthropy, they can be expected to develop highly innovative and creative uses of it. As private, corporate, and community foundations come more into contact with Native American donors and learn more about their giving practices, partnerships and collaborations among Native and non-Native grantmakers are likely to occur. If past is prologue, giving practices will continue to follow ancient culture and tradition, remaining community-based and need-driven.

[1]     Charles A. Eastman (Ohiyesa)(1899), The Soul of the Indian, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. A electronic version of this book can be found at

[2]     Ibid.

[3]     Christine Leigh Heyrman (October 2000), “Native American Religion in Early America,” National Humanities Center Home Page at

[4]     Eastman, p.10.