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Supporting Indigenous Communities: Cultural Nuances & Thoughtful Impact

November 23, 2023
By Staff

Indigenous communities are not a monolith. Different communities hold unique values, and their cultural heritage, lived experiences, and relationship to environment shape a community’s distinct character. Funding strategies that seek to engage these varied and diverse communities should therefore reflect this nuance. As CRNY has embarked on our programs for artists across New York State, we find it important to reflect upon this nuance that funders so often neglect. We thought it crucial to support GIA in this discussion to encourage the field of philanthropy to consider how to learn from Indigenous communities, recognize their differences, and act more thoughtfully when approaching strategies of support. 

On June 13 2023, Grantmakers in the Arts’ Senior Program Manager Sherylynn Sealy sat down with Historian, Indigenous Consultant, and Lecturer Heather Bruegl, M.A. (Citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin); Dr. Joseph M. Pierce, Associate Professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University (Cherokee Nation Citizen); and visual historian, artist, and curator Dr. Jolene Rickard (Citizen of the Tuscarora Nation) to discuss how funders can take a more nuanced approach to understanding, reaching, and engaging diverse Indigenous communities.  

The conversation was dynamic and wide-ranging, of which we highlight a few notable moments and takeaways that we will continue to engage with as an organization:

Indigenous Nations are Sovereign Nations

  • “Indigenous Nations are Sovereign Nations. They are peoples, and our peoplehood and nationhood matter in a very distinct way… We’re not just a race but are Sovereign Indigenous Nations that have Nation-to-Nation relationships with the United States. So that makes it a political identity in addition to an ethnic or racial one, if not primarily a political one.” – Dr. Joseph M. Pierce
  • “We are Sovereign Nations that deserve the same respect that you would give any other form of government. That we have been here since time immemorial. Our history exists prior to 1492, and that we have so many amazing scholars, writers, artists out there that are deserving of having their work looked at and seen and understood by people.” – Heather Bruegl, M.A
  • “An expression of sovereignty is that we decide who is part of us. If someone takes that role from us, it diminishes our role.” – Dr. Jolene Rickard.

Funders Have a Duty to Educate Themselves

  • “Funding is a very blunt instrument right now, and it will take some time and education to actually develop the framework.” – Dr. Jolene Rickard
  • “When it comes to funding… people don’t know where to start. They don’t know how to approach Tribal communities or Tribal people. And so there’s this education that has to take place beforehand.” – Heather Bruegl, M.A 
  • “Yes, these issues are complex, and we have internal divisions. Just like any community, we have differences of opinion and differences of thought and approach. But that doesn’t mean that it’s somehow incomprehensible.” – Dr. Joseph M. Pierce

What Funders Can Do

  • “If you want to stick within a particular place-based area, is this just to any Indigenous person enrolled in a Tribe just living in the area, or are you actually looking at the Tribal Nations that were in that area because they’re not there anymore? So you’re going to have to do some work.” – Heather Bruegl, M.A 
  • “If your funding organization does not include Indigenous people as part of the people you hire, hire some! If your portfolio doesn’t include Indigenous people in a reciprocal way, you can figure out how to do it. Treat peoples as part of ongoing collective groups, and admit when you don’t know something and when to get help.” – Dr. Joseph Pierce
  • “It’s more profound than being willing to recognize our place in the Americas and to deal with lateral aggression. There are many, many issues that really go beyond I think the rubric of what funding can do. But we’re here to discuss what funding can do, and I think we need to think about how we support projects that get at the deeper issues.” – Dr. Jolene Rickard

For funders, perhaps the most important takeaway is to appreciate and embrace the complexities in making an active and sustained commitment to Indigenous communities. Indigenous America is a sovereign, conceptual space that funders must take the time to understand before they enter. 

“Taking a specific interest in how you can approach Indigenous communities means really insisting on educating yourself about what happened in order for these different groups to exist in the ways that they do where they are,” said Dr. Pierce. “It can get really complex, but that doesn’t mean that it’s unknowable.”

We invite you to watch and engage with the entire webinar here