Native American Philanthropy

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Native Americans
Philanthropy in American Indian and Alaskan Native cultures is not a new phenomenon—there is a long and rich history of indigenous giving traditions, and today there is a growing nonprofit sector devoted to social justice and development of Native communities in the United States. This paper examines overarching themes of Native American philanthropy (there are over 500 registered tribal nations in the continental US, and all celebrate their own giving and receiving rituals and traditions specific to their own communities), how the practice of Native American philanthropy has changed over time, and what the nonprofit sector within tribal communities looks like today. Additionally, this lesson will offer specific examples of youth-centric philanthropy and its focus on preserving Native culture for future generations.


To understand the main themes of Native American philanthropy, it is imperative to study the impact of European colonization and the actions of the United States government that have affected Native peoples’ social, economic, and political status. Long before European colonization, Native American traditions of giving were rooted in cultural beliefs of mutual responsibility, the importance of maintaining a peaceful balance, and a spiritual interconnectedness to all things.

In Native American culture, giving is not only understood to be reciprocal, but is also an honor; as much as it is an honor to give, it is equally an honor to receive. Because it is such an honor to receive, there is also, in turn, an obligation to give (Mindy and Berry, 2000). Thus, the Native American idea of giving and receiving is cyclical. This concept—the circle of giving—reflects the spiritual belief of interconnectedness and serves to strengthen existing relationships and develop new ones. As Mindy Berry and Rebecca Adamson of First Nations Development Institute note, “the circle is a bonding experience; giving bonds one to the group and within the group because the individual provides gifts that allow the group to prosper, and the group provides gifts that allow the individual to prosper (2000).”

This idea of reciprocal giving in Native communities illustrates an intrinsic, spiritual investment in the protection and interest of future generations (Berry and Adamson, 2000). When one gift is given to another, but the recipient then gifts to a third person with interest (as in more than the original gift they had received), the cycle of giving continues but with an ever-increasing spirit of sharing and generosity. Through this cycle of giving, there is a belief in the security of the future of the community. (Salway-Black, 2001).

In tribal nations, there are many customs of giving and receiving including potlaches, giveaways, and feasts (Berry and Adamson, 2000). However, these customs are not merely based on the Western idea of “generosity,” but rather on deconstructing hierarchies and balancing wealth. The Indigenous view of philanthropy is a tool to restore order within a tribal nation, with other tribal nations, and to maintain a harmonious and peaceful relationship with nature. Through collective sharing, each individual has a responsibility to—and part ownership of—the group. In the poem, "Indian Giver" by Rebecca Adamson, she claims “Giving is not a matter of pure altruism and benevolence; But a mutual responsibility; To make the world a better place (Berry and Adamson, 2000).” Native American giving practices are seen as both cultural tradition, but also an obligation for all members of the community regardless of their economic or social status.

In contrast, Western views of philanthropy more often engage a noblesse oblige mindset, instead of a universal obligation mindset. Noblesse oblige means that the wealthy and powerful have a responsibility and moral obligation to give back to others who are less fortunate (Berry and Adamson, 2000).


Historical Background

In the midst of long-standing philanthropic perspectives and activities within Native American communities, tribal nations have faced long-standing challenges to their survival and well-being. These challenges are due to the history of marginalization experienced by Native people in the United States. There are seven historical periods that primarily affected Native American communities.

The Missionary Period (~1500–1828) European nations colonize and settle in North America under the Doctrine of Discovery which allowed white, Christian Europeans to lay claim to any place or people where Christianity was not practiced (NCAI, 2019, Villanueva, 2018). With the ratification of the United States’ Constitution in 1776, the new American federal government officially recognizes Native tribal sovereignty (the right to self-govern). In 1819, the U.S. Congress creates a “Civilization Fund” to fund churches’ goals to convert Native Americans (Adamson, 1995).

The Removal, Reservation, and Treaty Period (1828–1887) While the new, American government continues to allow tribal sovereignty, they use military force to remove American Indians from their lands and relocate them to Indian reservations. Reservations are established via 300+ treaties mandating American Indians to surrender the majority of their land in order to retain tribal sovereignty.

The Allotment & Assimilation Period (1887–1934) In 1887, The General Allotment Act is enacted breaking apart designated Indian reservation territories “into small parcels for individual Indian ownership (NCAI, 2019).” Over 60 percent of previously designated Indian territories are taken and given to European settlers; Natives receive nothing in return.

As Native lands are stripped from tribal communities by the American government, American Indian children are also removed from their families and made to attend Christian boarding schools in an effort to promote cultural assimilation. In 1911, the Society of American Indians is founded by Native American alumni who attended these boarding schools. While the group raised money for education and healthcare provision in tribal nations, Rebecca Adamson pointedly notes “With all [The Society of American Indians’] excellent work, it is of paramount importance to recognize the underlying philosophy and goal of this philanthropic effort was assimilation (1995).”

The Reorganization Period (1934–1945) In 1934, the American government passes the Indian Reorganization Act, reversing the allotment policy of American Indian lands, and preaching religious tolerance, allowing American Indians to return to practicing their original faiths. In addition, government aid is provided to create programs and opportunities to revive the Native economy (NCAI, 2019). Towards the mid-1940s, the National Congress of American Indians campaigns for the survival of Indian reservations in support of the Reorganization Act (Adamson, 1995).

The Termination Period (1945–1968) Federal aid distributed by the Indian Reorganization Act did little to revitalize the American Indian economy, but “Congress decided to terminate federal recognition and assistance to more than 100 tribes (NCAI, 2019).” Over the next two decades, Congress would create policies resulting in further trauma to Native peoples’ economy resulting in further loss of land and another era of forced relocation. But this time, Natives were forced to move from their designated reservations to urban areas. This movement to urban centers—in conjunction with the Civil Rights era—would see a rise in the development of voluntary associations within Native communities (NCAI, 2019).

The Institutional Period (1970s) Following the Termination period, American Indian assets and resources fall back under the control of Native tribes; with this period of self-determination comes a renewed “commitment to traditional beliefs and customs (Berry and Adamson, 2000).” The 1960s brings about “an era of Indigenous activism and tribal self-determination [that] led to major reforms in policies directed at Native nations (Villanueva, 2018).”

In the 1970s, the Ford Foundation creates the Native American Rights Fund, but in order to grant funds to reservations and tribal communities the Ford Foundation required Native American tribes to create organizations that would spend the funds in a way that was clearly articulated by the Ford Foundation. Because fund support in Native American communities was most often done at the grassroots level, these smaller, informal tribal associations stopped receiving funds as the money was redirected through the terms of the grant awarded by the Ford Foundation (Adamson, 1995).

The Self-Determination and Self-Sufficiency Period (1980s-1990s) In 1988, the Gaming Regulatory Act is passed, offering an entrepreneurial opportunity for tribal nations to support their communities and develop economic status for the community as a whole (NCAI, 2019).

The 1990s welcomes further support for Indigenous sovereignty voiced by the United Nations; this newfound respect for tribal governments allows Natives to take control of social welfare programs serving their people (NCAI, 2019). Despite the institutionalization of philanthropy that arose in the 1980s, support towards Native American funding opportunities continues. However, non-Native foundations grow leery of continuing to fund Native programs due to their growing dependence on foundation funding; with this lack of self-sufficiency there is a decrease in funding Native grassroots movements (Adamson, 1995).



One of the purposes of Native American philanthropy is to retain cultural traditions, languages, and religious beliefs because, even today, there is a cognizant fear of losing and forgetting parts of Native heritage as American assimilation continues to affect Indigenous communities. Following the self-determination period of the 1960s, the earlier “advocacy efforts of Native American organizations supported by their indigenous philanthropy contributed significantly to altering perspectives about the importance and value of Native American culture (Carson, 1999).” Meaning, not only had Native philanthropy saved their culture, but through their apparent self-sufficiency non-Native foundations and the U.S. government regained their interests in future funding opportunities.

Under the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, there was increased support for Native communities to retain tribal sovereignty and culture, and to support the greatest needs affecting Native communities. (NCAI, 2019). As support for self-determination has grown over the past few decades, Native communities have made significant strides in self-governance and a renewed partnership with the American federal government. Despite the gradual, slowly improving relationship with the federal government, treaties similar to those passed historically are still issued today. Many of these treaties include explicit clauses dictating federal assistance in a number of areas that would “ensure the success of tribal communities,” yet, “the federal government has never adequately funded these treaty provisions (NCAI, 2019).”

The significance of this reality is illustrated in the following statistic: American Indians and Native Alaskans make up nearly two percent of the overall US population. Since the new millennium, there has been a 27 percent increase in population growth, and in 2010, 28 percent of Native peoples were living in poverty (in comparison to 11 percent of the entire U.S. population) (NCAI, 2019). With a lack of federal funding towards education, healthcare resources, land retention and agricultural needs, and especially economic development, tribal nations continue to struggle to maintain their independence and support their communities. Tribal governance is “responsible for a broad range of governmental activities, including education, law enforcement, judicial systems, healthcare, environmental protection…, public buildings, [internet access], and electrical services,” etc. (NCAI, 2019). However, even with federal funding and the support of non-Native foundations, Native American philanthropy is essential to the survival of tribal nations. In Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, Native American author, Edgar Villanueva, proposes “using money as medicine” not only for historical reparations, but also for the advancement of Native communities via legislation, startup funds, or even asset-building projects (Villanueva, 2018).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

In recent years, tribal nations have seen the promotion of Native American funding by non-Native foundations. Entrepreneurial capital ventures have provided funding and economic advancement for Native American communities, while prominent Native American philanthropic institutions have also continued to develop.

A leader in the grantmaking world, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, began the “Cultures of Giving” program over 20 years ago to promote identity-based funding— an opportunity for the “practice of raising and leveraging resources by and from a community on its own behalf, where ‘community’ is defined not by geography but by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation (Kellogg, 2012).” Through this program, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation program partners with foundations within communities of color that work to support and give back to their own communities. For example, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation supported the Potlatch Fund through its “Cultures of Giving” program by awarding several grants as well as education on fundraising strategies that would be the most effective—and well received—within their own communities. These grants were, in turn, awarded to other local organizations and movements within the local Native community of the Potlatch Fund. The trust and support by non-Native foundations is one component of many that are essential to the successful funding of Native American organizations and social welfare programs (Kellogg, 2012, Kintopf, 2015).

Separately, the Native American gaming industry was legalized in 1988 (NCAI, 2019). While an entrepreneurial venture aimed at economic development for tribal nations, government stipulations require a percent of revenue be invested back into the local community. This may take the form of restaurants, housing developments, hotels, cattle farming, and even printing (Berry and Adamson, 2000, Sun-Ah, 2016). According to Mindy Berry and Rebecca Adamson, “new wealth among the more successful tribes has prompted creative forms of self-help and philanthropic activity. Some ventures include the formation of capital sources through Native American banks, as well as leverage support through Native foundations (Berry and Adamson, 2000).” Economic vitality goes hand-in-hand with Native communities’ ability to amass philanthropic momentum.

Prominent Native development institutions today are a byproduct of cultural assimilation to a certain extent which resulted in professionalized philanthropy practices. The best-known Native nonprofit organization is the First Nations Development Institute. Not only do they offer programs, but they also offer grants throughout the nation in support of tribal economic development, health, and Native youth (First Nations, 2019). In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the First Nations Development Institute focused on an initiative called “Strengthening Native American Philanthropy” or “SNAP.” This initiative served as an educational component of the Institute to develop and encourage understanding around philanthropic engagement within tribal communities. Through their educational programming and conferences, professionalized philanthropy holds a growing stake in Native communities’ economic development today. In its first 16 years of grantmaking, First Nations has managed over 1,500 grants totaling nearly $35 million to “Native American projects and organizations in 40 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. Territory American Samoa (First Nations, 2019).”

As economic growth among some tribal nations “has resulted in the evolution of creative forms of self-help and entrepreneurship, [these practices have combined with] traditions of giving (Berry and Adamson, 2000).” This marriage between entrepreneurial ventures and cultural forms of giving offers the opportunity to merge institutional and professional practices with “unique, culturally relevant structures and processes (Berry and Adamson, 2000).” And, as we discussed earlier, Native American philanthropy shows great promise when self-directed. Today, Native grantmaking foundations instill the notion in their communities that “solutions are to be found in Native traditions (Native Americans in Philanthropy Survey, 1999).” But Native American giving is not just about giving within their own community. There is also a documented history of Native tribes contributing to well-known museums, famine relief in foreign countries, and political groups throughout the United States (Hanson Shrout, 2015).

Even more unique to Native American philanthropy are the overall giving priorities of tribal nations. A report by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation shows that Native American philanthropic interests prioritize environmental giving—an uncommon funding interest in the overall analysis of identity-based funding in minority communities—in addition to cultural preservation, educational advancement, and economic development (2012). Consider the “No Dakota Access Pipeline” movement by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in 2016.


Key Related Ideas

  • American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN): “Persons belonging to the Indigenous tribes of the continental United States (American Indians) and the Indigenous tribes and villages of Alaska (Alaska Natives) (NCAI, 2019)"
  • Native American: “All Native peoples of the Unites States and its trust territories (i.e., American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Chamorros, and American Samoans), as well as persons from Canadian First Nations and Indigenous communities in Mexico and Central and South America who are US residents (NCAI, 2019)"
  • Identity-based philanthropy: “A movement to activate and organize giving within and on behalf of communities of color (Kellogg, 2012).”
  • Self-determination: the motivations to become sufficient for oneself or for a community to gain momentum and independence


Important People

  • Rebecca Adamson – Founded First Nations Development Institute
  • Edgar Villanueva – Native American philanthropy practitioner and author of Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, which proposes “using money as medicine” for the advancement of Native American development (Villanueva, 2018)


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • One Mind Youth Movement – Originally founded for and by Native American youth with the mission to reduce Native teen suicides, but took an active leadership role in the “No DAPL” movement in 2016.
  • Seventh Generation Fund – Created with adult and youth partners in the 1970s, and is one of the oldest formalized Native American nonprofit organizations in the United States. Their mission is “dedicated to the Indigenous Peoples’ self-determination and the sovereignty of Native nations,” in the tradition of “[considering] the impact of their decisions of the seventh generation yet to come.”
  • First Nations Development Institute “was founded in 1980 to help Indian tribes build sound, sustainable reservation economies. By mobilizing and assisting culturally viable projects on reservations, through grants, loans, technical assistance, research, advocacy and publications, First Nations supports local capacity for self-determined economic activities driven by community values (Berry and Adamson, 2000; First Nations, 2019)."


Reflection Questions 

How can Native American philanthropy aid in Indigenous self-determination?

In what ways could philanthropy be successful in bridging governmentalities between tribal nations and the U.S. government?

Why do you think Native American individuals and groups are more likely to support projects focused on the environment versus other philanthropic priorities?



  • Adamson, Rebecca. “Money with a Mission: A History of Indian Philanthropy.” Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education. Volume VI, Issue 3. 1995.
  • Berry, Mindy L. “Native American Philanthropy: Expanding Social Participation and SelfDetermination.” Published by The Alford Group. 1999.
  • Berry, Mindy and Rebecca Adamson. “The Wisdom of the Giveaway Conference: A Guide to Growing Native American Philanthropy.” Published by First Nations Development Institute. Print. 2000.
  • Carson, Emmett D. “The Roles of Indigenous and Institutional Philanthropy in Advancing Social Justice.” Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector. Edited by Charles T. Clotfelter and Thomas Ehrlich. Blooming, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • “Cultures of Giving Report: Energizing and Expanding philanthropy by and for communities of color.” Published by W. K. Kellogg Foundation. 2012.
  • First Nations Development Institute. “Our Values: Our Mission.” Online. 2019.
  • Hanson Shrout, Anelise. “A Voice of Benevolence from the Western Wilderness: The Politics of Native Philanthropy in the Trans-Mississippi West.” Journal of the Early Republic. Volume 35, Issue 4. 2015.
  • Kintopf, A., N. Toves Villaluz, J. Martínez, B. Schillo, and Y. Rasmussen. “Building an Organizational Culture That Supports Philanthropy in Indian Country: A Funder’s Story.” The Foundation Review. Volume 7, Issue 2. 2015.
  • National Congress of American Indians. "Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction Guide." 2019.
  • One Mind Youth Movement.
  • Seventh Generation Fund
  • Sun-Ah Ponting, Sandra, Jess Ponting, and Katherine Spilde. “Identifying Opportunities to Inform and Inspire: Tribal Casino Employee Perceptions of Tribal Self Sufficiency and Philanthropy.” UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal. Volume 20, Issue 2. 2016.
  • Villanueva, Edgar. Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance. 2018.


This briefing paper was authored by a studnet taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.