Celebrating the emergence of Native women-led philanthropy in the Southwest

Image credit: Cayetano Gil

Celebrating the emergence of Native women-led philanthropy in the Southwest

A nurturing spirit combined with a responsive attitude in crisis has moved to excel Native Women in the Southwest. They are coming together to address the basic needs exacerbated during the Covid pandemic.

In a recent interview, JoAnn Melchor, a member of Santo Domingo Pueblo and Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP), explained how native women from different foundations launched the Native America Relief Fund (NARC) in April 2020. NARC almost instantly deployed Covid relief, water, personal protective equipment (PPE), and basic supplies to Navajo and Apache Nations and Pueblos of New Mexico.

They saw their key role in raising and allocating the much-needed funds, two million of the three million dollar goal, and 90 grants. Their success was achieved thanks to two premises.  First, the application paperwork was simple and straightforward, and second, that connection and trust would happen immediately since all members of the advisory committee are Native people.

Another crucial aspect for successful channeling of funds has been the motherhood and caregiving nature of the women involved, who come from matriarchal clans. “It’s beautiful to see the unfolding, the re-centering of women’s voices,” said Joannie Romero, Executive Director of the Laguna Community Foundation.

Native women in leadership positions across New Mexico bring values of creating community, respect, love, and culture to their work. They also present themselves with this value system in community settings and when talking with non-Indigenous philanthropic organizations that want to understand how to collaborate best.

Native people are reclaiming systems, shifting the conversation, rewriting the narrative, and re-centering Indigenous women, continues Romero. “We can no longer accept pieces of funding that are short-term, unrealistic deliverables that require us to do what traditional philanthropy forces us to do. We cannot be in that realm any longer. It hasn’t gotten us anywhere.”

“Philanthropy has been so focused on one-year grants. Where is the funding for general operations? Not just funding a particular program that needs to be built… We’re out here competing against each other, forcing us to bend over backward to do a million things for short-term funding… we already have trauma from a scarcity mentality,” explained Romero.

“My generation is trying to save culture, to revive our language, revive the ways of our elders… The philanthropy community must take measurable steps toward actionable change,” Romero urged. “I feel like we made a lot of headway, but it all comes back to relationship building and potential funders being willing to listen.”

Southwest communities have been dealing with centuries of land grabs and decades of human rights violations through shrinking their homeland, restraining access to sacred grounds, and increasing impoverishment of socio-ecosystem health.

The persistent intervention by mining, oil, and gas exploration has created hundreds of sacrifice zones and lifelong sick family members, reducing the capacity to self-organize and thrive as a people rooted in nature.

The Hopi Foundation is one example of how all these issues are being addressed. Again, women’s leadership has been crucial. One of their projects is the Natwani Coalition, which is “working towards preserving the healthy food system and agricultural traditions of the Hopi and Tewa people.”

If anything, the Covid pandemic has enabled foundations to become much more sensible about the needs that both nature and original peoples require to thrive. And funders have a lot to learn.

Native peoples are a living example of how to live with nature, not from nature. They continue forging mutually beneficial collaborations, deeply understanding what it means to be bonded by our one, Mother Earth.

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