Adamson, Rebecca

Native Americans
Native Peoples
Rebecca L. Adamson, founder and president of the First Nations Development Institute, believes that Native Americans should be in control of their own schools and education, and has served a promoter of economic independence for tribes. She continues to work directly with the tribes and assists them in finding the most sufficient ways of developing successful small businesses and economies apart from the Federal Government without compromising their customs.

Biographical Highlights

Rebecca L. Adamson, half Cherokee, established and continues to remain president of the First Nations Development Institute as well as the founder of First Peoples Worldwide. With her belief that Native Americans should be in control of their own schools and education, she soon became a promoter of economic independence for tribes as well. She has sought ways to develop sovereignty among the Indigenous People through creating projects that stem from their original cultures and beliefs.

Since 1970, Adamson remains working directly with the tribes and assists them in finding the most sufficient ways of developing successful small businesses and economies apart from the Federal Government without compromising their customs. Furthermore, her organization has raised and distributed millions of dollars to help with these ventures.

Adamson obtained a Masters of Science in Economic Development from the University of Southern New Hampshire1 where she also teaches a graduate course on Indigenous Economics within the Community Economic Development Program (Indian Country Today).


Historic Roots

Rebecca Adamson was born in 19492 in Akron, Ohio. Though her mother was Cherokee, her father was of Swedish descent. The love of her Cherokee heritage grew as she would spend her childhood summers with her maternal grandmother in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina.

In 1970, Adamson dropped out of the University of Akron and she became involved with a group that fought to diminish the era of removing Native children from their homes and placing them within a boarding school run by the Federal government. These schools mandated the children to abandon their tribal cultures and beliefs, and their native languages. In 1975, Congress passed the Indian Education Self-Determination Act, allowing the Indigenous People to legally run their own schools. It was during this process that Adamson recognized the all-important need of also having the Native population become economically self-sufficient.

After working with various ideas of how to develop small businesses that would allow Native Americans to make their way out of poverty without them having to abandon their culture, Adamson courageously made a life-changing decision. As a single mother she ventured to New York City with cash from her unemployment check and requested grants from various organizations. After meeting with several others, the Ford Foundation finally bestowed upon her $25,000. She then set off for Fredricksburg, Virginia to put her beliefs into action and began The First Nations Financial Project, a nonprofit organization. Later, in 1990, the organization was renamed First Nations Development Institute.

Through the establishment of The First Nations Financial Project, Adamson turned her ideas into reality, helping Native American tribes build more sovereign nations by giving them a voice among the local, state, and federal governments. Furthermore, as of 1997, the First Nations Development Institute has given practical business assistance and financial support to 1,500 tribal groups in 22 states and American Samoa as well as individual Native American entrepreneurs (Virginia Women Foundation). Currently, the organization has an annual operation budget of nearly $3 million (National Women's History Project, 2003).

In the late 1980's Adamson was a representative for the United States in the drafting of the International Indigenous Rights Convention, "an enforceable statement by the International Labor Organization" (Lordly & Dame, Inc). More recently, she has taken her dream even further internationally. She has organized First Peoples Worldwide which assists indigenous people, such as the Khwe and San people of Botswana, the aboriginal groups in Australia, and various tribes in Canada. The organization has helped the tribes with various land and cultural issues in relation to economic development. Today, she continues to serve the indigenous people in the United States and abroad.


Since 1492, when Christopher Columbus and his crew first arrived upon the land that would one day become the Americas, the lives of the people already residing there have been changed. Through the years their customs and beliefs have been stripped away. Rebecca Adamson is one individual helping to prevent this injustice from progressing further and hopes to mend what has been destroyed. Still alive and well today, she continues to make a positive impact in the world around her.

Early in Adamson's career she found herself on the Pine Ridge reservation where 200 Lakota Indians were once massacred and where, more recently, poverty has been the highest in the nation. In response to this condition, Adamson and the First Nations Institute formed the Lakota Fund in 1985. This became the first "micro-enterprise loan fund" in the United States. As of 1997, it has created over 300 loans to Native American entrepreneurs on the Pine Ridge reservation. The businesses may use their culture, such as beadwork to create a profit, or use more contemporary ideas like becoming a video store owner (Cabral, 1997).

The original model of this fund was partially based upon the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh; however, Adamson also gives credit to the Lakota people. She believes this is an example of how they are able to solve their own problems without the assistance of other existing governments. Because of Adamson's initiative, the Lakota Fund became one of the "pioneering programs" that helped develop former President Clinton's early legislative effort in encouraging banking and lending to small business ventures in impoverished areas (ibid.).

The Lakota Fund is only one example of Adamson's efforts to help the Native people. She has traveled all over the United States as she works with all 50 states, guiding the 234 recognized tribes as well as "the smaller pueblos, Alaskan native villages, and non-reservation communities". As she visits each of these places she is known for leaving behind much hope and information to help bring the tribes even closer together. This allows them to work with one another and to find ways to utilize the foundations and banks that have been previously developed (ibid.).

Adamson has not only contributed to the physical and financial needs of the Indigenous people, but she has also taught them accountability. She finds that self-sufficient economies are not just about banking, but also include positive attitudes and empowerment. She declares, "People who have been victims may have the attitude that it was never their fault, so they don't have to take responsibility. That is insidious. You have to create projects that lock in accountability because the aim is to build personal efficacy, an 'I-can-do-it' attitude" (ibid.).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Adamson has made a great impact upon the Native communities and should be considered a modern day pioneer. She has paved the way for many Indigenous tribes to do what they have always dreamed, but did not have the resources. What once seemed impossible, she has found a way.

According to her on-line biography in Indian Country Today:

Her work established a new field of culturally appropriate, values-driven development which created: the first reservation-based micro-enterprise loan fund in the United States; the first tribal investment model; a national movement for reservation land reform; and legislation that established new standards of accountability regarding federal trust responsibility for Native Americans. Adamson established a Masters in Public and Private Administration (MPPA) scholarship program for Native People at the Yale School of Organization and Management. She also established an MBA scholarship at the Carlson School at the University of Minnesota.

Adamson is on the Board of Directors for the Calvert Social Investment Fund (the largest family of socially responsible funds), as well as Calvert Small Cap Fund. She serves on the Calvert Group Governance Committee, and Co-chairs the Calvert Social Investment Fund Audit Committee. Adamson helped co-founded the Calvert High Social Impact Investments, which was the first financial instrument whereby mutual fund shareholders and other individual investors could invest in community development loan funds. Offered in October 1990, it now has placed over $25 million in community and micro loan funds throughout the world. She is on the Board of Director for Tom's of Maine, and Chairs the Tom's of Maine Audit Committee.

Adamson is active in non-profit organizations and is currently serving on the Board of Directors for the Corporation for Enterprise Development, and Council on Foundations. She serves on the Council on Foundations' Robert W. Scrivner Award Committee for 2001. She is part of the Executive Session in Philanthropy, the Board of Advisors for SeaChange, and the National Editorial Advisory Circle for Indian Country Today.

Adamson is the 2001 recipient of the John W. Gardner Leadership Award, which honors outstanding Americans who exemplify the leadership of individuals working in the voluntary sector who build, mobilize, or unify people, institutions, or causes. Adamson was awarded the Council on Foundations 1996 Robert W. Scrivner Award for creative and innovative grantmaking and the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development's 1996 Jay Silverheels Award. In addition, she was named by Ms. Magazine as one of their seven "Women of the Year" (1997), and in 1998, she was named as one of the top ten Social Entrepreneurs of the Year by Who Cares magazine. Her monthly column written for Indian Country Today is devoted to alternative economic development and other issues.

She has previously served on the Board of Directors for: the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy; Council on Foundations Management and Investment Committee, President's Council on Sustainable Development/Sustainable Communities Task Force; Independent Sector; the Ms. Foundation for Women; The Natural Step; and Earthday Network 2000. She also served as an advisor to: the United Nations on Rural Development, U.S. delegate to the United Nations' International Labor Organization for International Indigenous Rights; the U.S. Catholic Conference's Campaign for Human Development on strategic planning for economic development; the International Labor Organization for International Indigenous Rights; and as a consultant for the OECD to Australia on Aboriginal development. She was a founding member of Native Americans in Philanthropy, Funders Who Fund Native Americans, and International Funders for Indigenous Peoples.

Among Adamson's many accomplishments, she has contributed greatly to the welfare of others. Her roles, as well as her ambition, have caused her to make a difference in the lives she encounters. With all that she has previously done and with all that she has planned for the future, her legacy will continue to positively impact the lives of the Indigenous people.

Key Related Ideas

Rebecca Adamson has a strong belief in sovereignty development where tribes should no longer be dependent upon the Federal government and their money.

The teaching and practice of business administration is one way in which Adamson finds sovereignty development possible.

Adamson believed Indigenous People (living in an area prior to being colonized by a state) needed to be economically self-sufficient, in other words, able to provide for their needs without help from organizations outside the tribe including U.S. government.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Taiaiake Alfred: Alfred is a member of the Mohawk Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. He is the Indigenous Peoples research chair at the University of Victoria, and the author of Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors: Kahnawake Mohawk Politics and the Rise of Native Nationalism (1995) and Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (1999).
  • Vine Victor Deloria Jr. (1933- present): Deloria is a Native author who is one of the most outspoken figures in Native American Affairs. He works to promote Native American cultural nationalism and a greater understanding of Native American history and philosophy.
  • Sharon O'Brien: O'Brien is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Indigenous Nations Studies at the University of Kansas. She is the author of American Indian Tribal Governments and several articles on status and rights of indigenous peoples.
  • Cornel D. Pewewardy: Pewewardy is an Assistant Professor of Teaching and Leadership at the University of Kansas. He is the author of many articles in relation to Indigenous issues, particularly on education. Furthermore, he is an advocate for sovereign nations.
  • Wayne Warry: Warry is an author and an Associate Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University. His focus is primarily among the aboriginal communities in Canada and self-determination.
  • Michael J. Yellow Bird: Yellow Bird is the Director of the Center for Indigenous Nations Studies at the University of Kansas. He is also an Associate Professor of American Studies at the university, as well as a published author. He is a member of the Sahnish and Hidatsa First Nations.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Calvert High School Impact Investments, co-founded by Adamson in 1990, developed the the first financial instrument in which mutual fund shareholders and other individuals can invest in community development loan funds.
  • First Nations Development Institute was founded by Adamson in 1980 with the mission to assist Indigenous Peoples in controlling and developing their assets and, through that control, build the capacity to direct their economic futures in ways that fit their cultures (
  • Ford Foundation works to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. The foundation gave Rebecca Adamson her first grant to start the First Nations Institute (
  • First Peoples Worldwide was also founded by Adamson with a mission to promote Indigenous determination and control of assets by strengthening Indigenous communities through sharing of knowledge of both needs and resources (
  • Lakota Fund, originally a project of the First Nations Development Institute of Falmouth, Virginia, is now a community run program by the Lakota people (


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Cabral, Elena. "Ford Foundation Report: Rebecca Adamson." Ford Foundation.
  • Indian Country Today. "Rebecca L. Adamson's Online Biography."
  • Lorldy & Dame, Inc. "Rebecca Adamson."
  • National Women's History Project. "2003 Women's History Month Honorees: Rebecca Adamson." 2003.
  • Virginia Foundation for Women. "Rebecca Adamson, Fredricksburg, Advocate for Indigenous Peoples." 


1 Formerly know as New Hampshire College located in Machester, New Hampshire.

2 Though Adamson's birth year is most commonly given as 1949, the alternate year of 1950 has also been found.


This paper was developed by an adjunt instructor for San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico.