Native Women: Leading the Way

There are some great things happening in Indian Country – the Indigenous communities in the United States. And Native women are leading the way, especially when it comes to business and entrepreneurship, asset building, credit and finance, and the creative economy. Tanya Fiddler, Elsie Meeks, Tawney Brunsch, and Lori Pourier represent a small sample of brilliant, long-time Native leaders working on some of the hardest issues – and in some of the most difficult locations – and finding success.

For 25 years, the Johnson Scholarship Foundation (JSF) has invested in the efforts of Indigenous communities in the U.S. to develop their economies. JSF’s strategy is to focus primarily on education – in the case of Native communities, in entrepreneurship and business education at tribal colleges and universities and Native-serving education institutions.  We also invest in Native leadership by supporting the efforts of Native non-profits working in economic development.

As it so happens, JSF has invested in the organizations led by these awesome women – and has seen positive change as a result.

JSF supported the efforts of Tanya Fiddler when she was the Executive Director of the Four Bands Community Loan Fund on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Through Four Bands, Tanya helped to support business creation, financial education, and tanya.jpgasset building on one of the poorest counties in the US.  And when she recently took the lead at the Native CDFI Network, JSF provided support for the work of this relatively new group that organizes and supports the increasing number of Community Development Financial Institutions in Native communities.

Elsie Meeks has been instrumental in the Native CDFI movement from the start as the one-time executive director of the Lakota Fund (now the Lakota Funds), the head of the First Nations Oweesta Corporation, and now back as the chairperson of the Lakota Funds. elsieElsie took her knowledge and experience to lead many national efforts and represent
Indigenous peoples on the U.S. Human Rights Commission, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Northwest Area Foundation, and now with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. JSF provided support at a critical time for the Lakota Fund.

The Lakota Funds is now led by Tawney Brunsch, a no-nonsense leader focused primarily on her community, the Pine Ridge tawney.jpgIndian Reservation in South Dakota – and state/regional issues that affect her community. She also founded the Lakota Federal Credit Union (LCFU) four years ago and now serves as
the chair of the board. The Lakota Federal Credit Union has served the Pine Ridge community – again, one of the poorest in the U.S. – for more than 30 years and continues to make a difference in this community through business lending, business and financial education, credit repair, savings, and now working on housing. JSF provided an equity grant to the LFCU helping to provide consumer credit capital for this community – LFCU now has more than 2500 members.

Lori Pourier heads First Peoples Fund (FPF), a 17 year old national Native non-profit Loriworking with culture bearers and artists in Indigenous communities. Lori is a leader in the field – not just for Native arts and culture – but arts and culture period. She is the go-to person for the “creative economy” in Indian Country. FPF provides professional training workshops for Native artists and works with NCDFIs to train business coaches on how to work with Native artists. FPF also provides fellowship for Native artists to help them grow and improve their businesses. JSF supported FPF to expand their efforts to work with Native artists.

One of the many attributes I admire about these amazing leaders is their collaboration and partnership efforts. They all work together on many initiatives and recognize that supporting one another with their communities, with the tribal/state/federal government, with other partners, and with funders elevates all of their efforts. Tanya, Elsie and Tawney all work together on the South Dakota Native American Housing Coalition to provide not only much needed housing on reservations but helping to create jobs in housing construction. Lori and Tawney are currently working to expand training and financial products to Native artists – and expand financial services to the community – through a “Rolling Rez Arts” van that also serves as a mobile bank.

Having worked in philanthropy for many years now, I know that many foundations do not have experience in Native communities, feel that it is too risky, or do not fund “special population groups.” These four women have worked for many years on some of the riskiest ventures, in some of the most difficult communities – and have been successful. They are having an impact not only in their communities but across Indigenous communities – and beyond. Investing in their leadership and their organizations is a good bet.

We at JSF would be happy to talk with other funders interested in funding Indigenous communities and share our experiences with you.


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