South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is best known as the site of the 71-day armed takeover of Wounded Knee by Russell Means, Dennis Banks and the American Indian Movement in 1973. You might assume that conditions have since improved at Pine Ridge, especially with the advent of Indian casinos—yet the situation on the reservation remains appalling. “The average yearly income is $3,500 for a family. There’s 90 percent unemployment, a 45-years-of-age average life expectancy for men with an 80 percent high school dropout rate. I was the first of my bloodline to finish high school. In the celebration, people treated me as if I’d had graduated from Harvard,” said Oglala Sioux tribe member Twila True, the founder and CEO of the True Sioux Hope Foundation in an interview with Inside Philanthropy.
True launched the foundation in 2014, to raise funding for education and infrastructure, supporting nonprofit organizations working with the Sioux nation. Last year was the True Sioux Hope Foundation’s first full year of operation.
True says new resources are desperately needed to improve life for the Sioux tribe in South Dakota. She acknowledged that casinos like the one on the Pechanga Indian Reservation in Temecula, California have helped some tribes. But the Oglala Sioux got shortchanged on land that is 100 miles from the nearest town, and a harsh climate that is not conducive to a hotel resort, convention center, RV park, and golf course like Pechanga. The Sioux’s Prairie Winds Casino is tiny in comparison. Even the land on Pine Ridge Reservation—which is roughly the size of Connecticut, with a population of nearly 19,000—is not particularly fertile, so raising food has been a problem. The reservation’s sole supermarket, Sioux Nation Shopping Center, was temporarily closed in 2012 after the Indian Health Service discovered spoiled meat in the store.
Pine Ridge has few commercial establishments. There aren't banks or movies theaters or discount stores. There are no major private employers from industry or tech. Alcohol affects eight out of 10 families on the reservation. Pine Ridge has the highest infant mortality rate in the U.S.
So what has been True's strategy of mobilizing new philanthropic resources to improve life on Pine Ridge? She spent the foundation's first year promoting awareness of Pine Ridge’s issues. She said that people are surprised to learn a set of facts that “rival third-world country statistics." The foundation has a compelling website that does a great job of communicating just how bleak the situation on Pine Ridge is, and some $15,000 in donations have come in online.
More significantly, in 2015, the foundation got help in kind. “We established partnerships and alliances with other groups," said True. "One of the more interesting ones is Thrive Market, the membership e-commerce arm of Whole Foods. They have adopted True Sioux Hope as one of their causes.” The goal is to deliver wholesome supplies to poverty-stricken Native Americans through customized $50 product boxes. “A second partnership with Bed Bath and Beyond in South Dakota will donate all of their inventory overruns. These are pillows, blankets. Bare necessities, but all brand-new items.” Nature’s One donated 14,000 tubes of PediaVance Electrolyte to Sioux of Pine Ridge to prevent dehydration. Kendra Scott, a fashion jewelry boutique in Newport Beach, California hosted a charitable event before Christmas where 20 percent of all purchases made benefited the foundation.
True places a premium on education as a way for Pine Ridge residents to lift themselves up. She has partnered with Donna Pickup, the owner of Newport Beach’s Balboa Bay Club to work with educators, to bring a girl’s prep school to Pine Ridge. It will be a first, not only for the Oglala Sioux, “but also for any reservation in the U.S." The school is set to open in September 2016.
True’s alcoholic mother gave birth to her at 16; she never knew her Sioux father. In her early years, True escaped the reservation thanks to a government-sponsored lottery relocation program of mainstream cultural assimilation. She saw bookkeeping as her way out of poverty, working her way up from one company to another and establishing a reputation for hard work. Her diligence paid off. She became the CEO of Synthane Taylor, a circuit board manufacturer with 300 employees. On a blind date, she met her Kansas-born husband, who proved to be a born entrepreneur. Together, they spent more than a dozen years working together in China. While there, she established her first charity, Love without Boundaries-True Children's Home, which rescued hundreds of kids with terminal birth defects by providing life-improving surgeries to promote adoption.
When the True family moved back to the U.S., she turned her attention to helping her people at Pine Ridge. “In 2016, we are going to start fundraising campaigns, beginning with a gala at the Balboa Bay Club in the first quarter 2016. In 2015, I tried to educate myself with the long-term solution to the reservation’s problems, so I can be a good person to take funds and know what I’m doing with them. I’m not looking for a Band-Aid but possibly a solution which will get us out of where we are.”
Twila True is eager to communicate with fundraising professionals who can help take her effort to the next level.