Native American Philanthropy (Paper II)

Giving in Native American cultures is a way of life rather than an obligation or a responsibility. Their religion and philosophy is based upon sharing, giving and receiving, and this concept of interconnectedness serves as a system to balance community resources. The philanthropic act of gift distribution among the Native American people is at the heart of this concept paper. The philosophy of Giveaway has deep roots in the Native as well as many other archaic civilizations on earth.


Derived from its Greek and Latin roots philanthropy is defined as philanthrOpia, loving people, from phil + anthrOpos human being (Mirriam Webster, 2003). It means goodwill to people, an active effort to promote human welfare. The philanthropic act of gift distribution among the Native American people is at the heart of this concept paper. The philosophy of Giveaway has deep roots in the Native as well as many other archaic civilizations on earth.

Historic Roots

Native American tribes have a long and fascinating history of self-sufficiency and community support for their members. This has been traditionally a tribal government-to-citizen relationship of gifting, rather than one of charity. 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.

To this day, many Native American community members open their homes to their youth as a place of safety and support. Upon a community member’s death, the tradition provides an opportunity to giveaway all the material belongings of that individual to others in the community. Indeed this is based on the belief that the person who leaves this world with the least is the most generous and thus the wealthiest member of a society. This concept of giveaway for mutual support has been given a negative connotation over the centuries as “Indian Giver.” In fact this term implies the very concept of communal sharing and reciprocating the gift and resources, not necessarily to the giver, but onto others in the community. It entered the English language under historical circumstances that distorted its meaning. The true meaning signifies a willingness to care, an expectation of sharing, and a cultural commitment to reciprocity that was not to be questioned (Reynolds, 2003).

Focusing on various philanthropic eras of investment in the Native American history reveals a sobering pattern as Adamson (2003) describes it in “Philanthropy and Native Americans.” In the Missionary Era of the early 19th century, a “Civilization Fund” was created to support church groups for the clear intent of “civilizing” indigenous people of the land to become “good Christians,” a political goal of the church.

By the end of 19th century, philanthropy had expanded into the “Chief Making Era.” Through this perceived benevolence, wealthy benefactors selected and sent the “best and the brightest” Natives to Eastern boarding schools, to gain modern life-long skills for leading a better life. Similar to federal agents, these philanthropists primarily chose the Natives they felt the most comfortable with as those who were unlikely to maintain their traditional ways of living. Thus by the early 1900s, a very select group of Native Americans emerged through this mode of philanthropy and influence in the Native culture.

The boarding school graduates formed the Society of American Indians in 1911, as the very first pan-Indian movement (Calloway, 1999). Following the 1928 Meriam Report as a blueprint for radical reform of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, this group embraced social causes such as providing better schools and better hospitals (National Library of Medicine). The Society raised funds for various tribes and represented the Native people. It is important to underscore the intention for this activity was assimilation. A philosophy that still remains today.

This movement created the Political Leadership Era for the Native Americans. For example, the National Congress of American Indians and the Association of American Indian Affairs organized in the mid-1940s to advocate politically for the survival of the reservations. Both entities were reacting to the effect of tribal land rights and its inherent and future devastations under the Eisenhower policy of termination.

Today, this history may only change through the creation of foundations, solely controlled and supported by the Native Americans through the resources generated from tribal gaming and collaboration with the private sector. Native American grant-making versus grant-seeking is a new paradigm in the latter part of the 20th century. Therefore, a movement to formal giving via instruments such as private or community foundations must be within the context of their sovereignty, and respectful to their cultural and structural integrity. Native Americans will understandably proceed this formalization with some caution and serious questions (Adamson, 1999) such as:

  • How will formalized philanthropy affect their tradition and culture — for good or for bad?
  • What legal consequences can be expected from choosing certain options within formalized philanthropy?
  • Will those moves affect the choices available in the future?
  • How will compliance with certain federal reporting requirements affect the tribe in the future?
  • If a tribe files a Form 990 one year, will it be open to federal insistence that it file other forms in its financial operations next year?
  • Finally, how will the totality of tribal involvement in formalized philanthropy affect other tribes that have similar interests in grant-making
  • Will the choices of one tribe lock in those that follow?

The First Nations Development Institute developed the Strengthening Native American Philanthropy (SNAP) initiative in 1995 to increase Native American and tribal participation in philanthropy, both as funders and grant recipients. According to the 2000 Census, Native Americans account for 1.5 percent of the U.S. population. Yet, only 1/6 of one percent of our national philanthropic funding reached the Native American communities or organizations (Adamson, 1999). Therefore, the native tribes and organizations must deploy their own models and opportunities for philanthropic activities to protect, maintain and grow their cultural and community assets.

Through a combination of education, outreach, and the regional Wisdom of the Giveaway conference series, First Nations has been sharing information about developing philanthropic models and sovereign approaches to charitable giving. A 1998 Foundation Center study found that the total foundation funding allocated to Native Americans from 1992 through 1996 varied between 0.5 and 0.9 percent of total giving. A 2002 study confirmed this same trend for the period 1997 through 2000, with funding allocated to Native Americans ranging between 0.5 and 0.8 percent of total giving. Table A indicates the 10 largest U.S. foundations awarding grants to Native Americans (Harvard Project, 1998).


Foundations are engaged with Native American grant-making primarily based on their leaders’ interest. There are only five foundations that have an explicit program focus regarding Native Americans. This is somewhat remarkable given that philanthropy and Native Americans go back to the beginning of this country. In the early treaties of 1636, specific provisions included funds for Harvard, Dartmouth, and Yale to educate Native Americans. There are no records indicating how many benefited. By each institution’s admission, recruiting Native American students has been a very recent effort, and not a 360-year-old process (Adamson, 2003).

First Nations Development Institute in partnership with the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) examined the relationship between giving and gaming tribes today. The survey found that basically every gaming tribe is involved in giving. While most did not have a formal tribal philanthropy program, all gaming tribes are giving entities and contribute funds to charitable causes or to needy communities. Their priorities were identified as youth, schools, elderly programs, health programs, and sports programs, and local communities.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Today the best source of self-sufficiency seems to be based on inter-tribal collaboration. Native American nation-to-nation support can address the common needs for empowerment and the greater good of all tribes. More prosperous tribes may commit a small portion of their Gross Tribal Product (GTP) to an inter-tribal development program (Indian Country Today, 2003).

The mutual support can create opportunities for the creation of strong community development corporations, as well as community and private foundations under the Section 7871 of IRS codes. Established in 1982, the Indian Tribal Governmental Tax Status Act originally viewed tribes as grant-seekers (, 2003). But with the existence of these new foundations, the Native American Nations can indeed become grant-makers for producing meaningful and sustainable services and opportunities.

According to a study by the Native Assets Research Center (2001), there are several advantages for a tribe to create a formal giving program:

  • Provides a means for the values and aspirations of the tribe to be realized.
  • Brings visibility, awareness, and builds public relations regarding tribal giving.
  • Allows for tribal members who give to use the amount donated to be deducted against their income tax.
  • Allows the tribe to collaborate with other donors to affect change and improvement.
  • Allows the tribe to direct its giving and to focus its resources.
  • May provide the tribe the opportunity to play a more active role in the causes to which it contributes.

Key Related Ideas

  • Wisdom of the Giveaway - Annual conference to introduce and discuss contemporary Native American Philanthropy in the United States.
  • Native American Assimilation by the US Government.
  • Native American Communalism - Philosophy of self-sufficiency and sharing within members of a tribe.
  • American Indian Philanthropy - Tribal giving, formal and informal support.
  • National Indian Gaming Association - Impact of the gaming industry on various Native American tribes and foundations.
  • Tribal Tax Status Act 1982 and 501(C) (3) Provisions-Specific code established in 1982 for the inter-tribal establishment of Native American private and community foundations.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Rebecca Adamson, president and founder of the First Nations Development Institute. Fredericksburg, Virginia.

  • Mindy Berry, M.P.P., Vice President of The Alford Group, Washington, DC.

  • Kathleen Nilles, Esq. Attorney at Law at Gardner, Carton & Douglas. Washington, DC.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

There are hundreds of nonprofit organizations directly and indirectly related to the stewardship of native peoples. Among the largest, oldest, and most well-known are:

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Adamson, Rebecca. “A River So Wide: Considering the Options of Native American Formal Philanthropy,” Indian Giver 5 (1999): 4, 2-4.

Adamson, Rebecca. “Philanthropy and Native Americans.” Native Americas (2003).10-13.

Calloway, Colin G. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History byNative American History in the 20th Century. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999, 2: 413-437. ISBN: 0312150032

First Nations Development Institute. “Strengthening Native American Philanthropy.”

Indian Country Today. “Toward a common American Indian development.” (2003)

The Internal Revenue Service (accessed 12/04/2003),,id=108359,00.html

The Meriam Commission and Health Care Reform (1926-1945)

Reynolds, J. “News on Native American Grantmaking,” Indian Giver 8 (Fall 2002): 2.

“Tribal Giving: What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Formalized Philanthropy?” Native Assets Research Center.

The Wisdom of the Giveaway Conference: A Guide to Native American Philanthropy. Milwaukee (November 2002).

Listserv Discussion on the Internet - The “Sovereign Philanthropy” listserv allows for individuals and groups interested in promoting Indian tribal sovereignty through philanthropic vehicles to post, discuss, and share ideas over the Internet.


Table A

Top Native American Grant Makers (1988-1998)

Foundation Total Amount # of Grants

1. Ford Foundation $67,413,287 339

2. W.K. Kellogg Foundation $58,103,707 271

3. Lilly Endowment Inc. $50,839,601 35

4. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation $31,997,117 125

5. Bush Foundation $25,660,033 296

6. Lannan Foundation $24,572,610 154

7. David and Lucile Packard Foundation $22,004,406 197

8. Educational Foundation of America $18,321,024 151

9. California Endowment $15,247,501 55

10. McKnight Foundation $13,744,983 158

Source: Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and the Foundation Center


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.