Native American Philanthropy (Paper I)

Native American tribes have a long and fascinating history of self-sufficiency and community support for their members. The giving-and-receiving reciprocity in the Native American communities has been informal, ceremonial and ritualistic. Its sole purpose has remained as a way of "helping out" in hard times. All gaming tribes are giving entities and contribute funds to charitable causes or to needy communities.


Wilson Justin (Tlingit) best defines traditional Native American philanthropy: "In Native cultures, philanthropy means the honor of giving" (Wells 1998). Giving in Native cultures is a way of life rather than an obligation or a responsibility. This viewpoint defines Native American philanthropy today, as well as when Europeans first came to North America.

Historic Roots

Historian Robert Bremner states, "The earliest American philanthropists, as far as European records go, were those gentle Indians...who greeted Columbus at his first landfall in the New World" (in Wells 1998). In terms of written history, the only record of philanthropy and giving in Native cultures comes from European-American documents, which may not reflect an accurate meaning and understanding of Native American philanthropy. Within and between the numerous Native American communities, the words, stories, images, and actions that represent philanthropy vary. Upon Europeans' first contact with Native Americans, there were "2000 bands, tribes or states following 11 major cultural styles. They spoke 200 separate languages, grouped into seven major linguistic families" (Eiteljorg Museum 1992). Modern day Native American philanthropists can help illuminate Native philanthropy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

As previously mentioned, historic Native American philanthropy was perceived as an honor, both in the gift and the receipt. It was also a way of life for the community, families and individuals, coming in a variety of forms. Whether it was the gift of "words, prayers, gifts of time, energy, or love," it was considered to be a part of interconnectedness to one another (Wells 1998). Darrell Kipp from the Blackfeet tribe states, "The entire religion and philosophy is based on sharing, giving, and receiving" (ibid.). During the 1700s, this concept of interconnectedness was also a system for the communal tribes to balance resources in the community. In essence, material items were given for redistribution of resources and the philanthropy existed in the spirit of the gift rather than considering the value of the physical item. In this way, it is the concept of circular giving that is extremely important— American Indians believe that gift giving should always be in motion. In other words, the recipients of gifts are expected to continue the gift by giving to others.

One example of a common philanthropic tradition, especially among the Northwest coast cultures, is the potlatch. The purpose of this ceremony is for all participants to give away personal belongings including "garments, carved chests, canoes, copper plaques, and blankets" (Eiteljorg Museum 1992). Usually in the form of a formal ceremony, guests receive gifts usually based on the rank in the community and accept the gifts in order to validate the potlatch, thus enhancing the reputation of both the donor and the recipient.

While this is one example of gift giving in a particular tribe or region, Dagmar Thorpe suggests that the "underlying values, principles, philosophy and world view of giving are universal concepts among Native People. The difference is the way giving is done depending on what is within the land of those people" (Wells 1998). Examples of various words relating to generosity in the multiple indigenous cultures are:

Aa ni tse ha kees   (Navajo)
Ah de ne hi   (Eastern Cherokee)
Baawaailuuo   (Crow)
Gondowwe   (Oneida of Wisconsin)
Gunuitug   (Yupik Eskimo)
Hotoehaestse   (Cheyenne)
Iikimmapiii   (Blackfeet)
Kwti-xest   (Salish)
Mah-sagi   (Hidatsa)
Maw-Maw/Weyah-Skah-sit/Mah-che-toe   (Menominee)
Mohokuulhoolaanh   (Koyukon; Doyton area of Alaska)
Naki-sahnes-hu   (Arikara)
Nicomo   (Narrangansett)
Qaupy'ti   (Kootneai)
Tsrou-cu-we   (Keres: Languana Pueble of New Mexico)
Wancantognaka   (Lakota)
Zhaaweni   (Ojibway)

(Center for the Study of Philanthropy 2001)


The importance of Native American philanthropy is not only to further understand philanthropy or Native cultures, but also to realize its distinctiveness from the European American concept of philanthropy that has evolved. Philanthropy in Native American tribes was an ingrained part of life to sustain a community and an "ethical code of survival...Such concepts are closely linked to the land as a basis of tribal community, and of the responsibility of preservation for future generations" (ibid.). The philanthropic activities that existed in Native American communities before European arrival laid the foundation of rituals and core beliefs for modern-day Indian practices.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

In many tribal communities, it was viewed that the poorer members would be the first to receive gifts and the wealthier individuals should be the ones to initiate the honor of giving. In this regard, all personal belongings are viewed as dispensable to others in greater need. It was also the belief that the land Native Americans lived on belonged to the ancestors and must be preserved for future generations. There was no sense of individual ownership.

According to the Eiteljorg Museum, philanthropic activities took on different forms in order to achieve social harmony. Such activities included collective hunting, food distribution, and sharing of resources. Philanthropy did not just take place between the elders in the tribes; it was taught to children at a very young age. Donna Chavis, Lumbee, states: "In their first form of giving, children are encouraged in the giving of respect to their elders" (Wells 1998).

To more completely understand Native American philanthropy, it is useful to compare its underlying interests to those of European-American philanthropy. The latter is driven by beliefs of responsibility and power, affluence and wealth, and ownership (Center for the Study of Philanthropy 2001). In contrast, the underlying factors of Native American philanthropy are obligation and honor, generosity, and stewardship (ibid.).

Key Related Ideas

Often times the concept of reciprocity arises when thinking about both the honor of giving and the honor of receiving as the basis for Native American philanthropy. Reciprocity is defined as "the obligation to return benefits for benefits received" (Moody, 1994). Further, Rebecca Adamson suggests that "The reciprocity [in Native America] is not quid pro quo but the gift is given, the beneficiary is expected also to give, not necessarily back, but on, so the gift is always alive" (Wells 1998).

Marcel Mauss conducted research on gift giving in primitive societies. He found it to be quite similar to the potlatch, a total system of giving based on giving out of honor, but also for economic value. He states, "The present generously given even when in the gesture accompanying the transaction, there is only a polite fiction, formalization, and social deceit, and when really there is obligation and economic self-interest" (2000, 3).

Important People Related to the Topic

To distinguish a handful of Native Americans as outstanding philanthropists is seen by some as contrary to the essence of their traditions, the importance of communal identity. Individuality is not a sought after goal and acts of giving and service are an honor and obligation.

In addition, the desperate circumstances that Native peoples, particularly on reservations, have survived has created a history of active philanthropy tied closely to cultural remembrance and celebration, protest, human rights activism, and legal battles. Native philanthropists have sought to address extreme poverty, lack of resources, high rates of alcoholism, and cultural upheaval through whatever means available and with limited resources. A handful of Native Americans are well-known for their actual or accused militancy through the American Indian Movement. Movement members Leonard Peltier and Russell Means brought significant attention to Native American rights as they were willing to sacrifice freedom and comfort in attempts to force the United States government to address broken treaties and unfair treatment.

Naturally, there are a number of individuals who dedicated their lives and work to furthering the rights and quality of life of their tribes or of all Native Americans. Winona LaDuke , one of the most prominent Native American environmental activists today, works on the White Earth Land Recovery Project in northern Minnesota. The project strives to have land in a wildlife refuge returned to her tribe. Vine (Victor) Deloria Jr. , a Standing Rock Sioux and prominent author, is one of the most well-known and outspoken activists. He promotes Native American nationalism and increased understanding of their history and philosophy. Wilma P. Mankiller , former Principal Chief of the Cherokee nation, devoted much of her adult life to the self-sufficiency of her people, mainly through community development.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

American Indian Movement was founded to help renew the spirituality and resolve of Native Americans and to help unite them against detrimental policies of the governments in the Americas. Protests and militant action, such as the standoff at Wounded Knee in 1972, brought significant attention to Movement members.

Center for the Study of Philanthropy at The Graduate Center, City University of New York is a "national forum for research, discussion and public education on philanthropic trends," with an emphasis on multicultural philanthropy (

The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University strives to increase the understanding of philanthropy and improve its practice through research, academic programs, and public service.

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art has a broad art collection by Native American artists or depicting Indian life or life in the American West from the time or frontier days.

First Nations Development Institute: Helps Native American tribes and communities "rebuild their economies through asset-based community economic development"

Native Americans in Philanthropy celebrates the history of Native American giving and community stewardship.

Northwest Area Foundation specifically targets poverty in an eight-state Northwest region; this area contains a high concentration of Native Americans.

The Saint Paul Foundation awards Diversity Endowment Funds (DEF), funding "groups and organizations throughout Minnesota that are developing innovative programs to address issues affecting communities of color"

Bibliography and Internet Resources

Carson, Emmett D. "The Roles of Indigenous and Institutional Philanthropy in Advancing Social Justice." In Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector, edited by Charles T. Clotfelter and Thomas Ehrlich. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999. ISBN: 0253335213.

Center for the Study of Philanthropy, The Graduate Center, City University of New York. "Multicultural Philanthropy Curriculum Guide, Native American Guide" [online]. Available to order: (24 September 2001).

Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art. "Guide Handbook, 1992-1993." Indianapolis: Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art, 1991.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. ISBN: 039332043X.

Moody, Michael P. "Pass It On: Serial Reciprocity as a Principle of Philanthropy." Essays on Philanthropy, no. 13. Indianapolis: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 1994.

Murray, David. Indian Giving. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. ISBN: 1558492437.

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology [online]. Available: (4 May 2002).

Potlatch: The Gift Economy [online]. Available: (23 November 2001).

Stately, Jo-Anne E. "Walking Softly Across the Dialogue of Religion, Spirituality, and the Native American Experience of Giving." Paper presented at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University 14th Annual Symposium, Indianapolis, October 2001.

Wells, Ronald Austin. The Honor of Giving: Philanthropy in Native America. Indianapolis: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 1998. ISBN: 1-884354-15-7.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.