"Ripple Effect." What Might Standing Rock Mean for Native American Funding?

After months of demonstration, prayer, arrests, bodily harm, and global outcry, water protectors fighting the Dakota Access oil pipeline won an important victory when the Army Corps of Engineers denied a key permit to proceed, halting the project. There’s still uncertainty ahead, especially with a hostile new administration moving into the White House in a matter of weeks. But it is a big win, and a high-profile one that happened on a global stage. 

In an earlier piece, I looked at the lessons of Standing Rock for progressive philanthropy writ large. But this experience has also raised hope that a growing movement, and the funders that back it, can begin to address long-neglected needs in Native American communities, and also extend the Standing Rock movement’s impact beyond the pipeline fight.

Related"There's a Real Opportunity for Funders to Learn Here." Lessons from Standing Rock

“This presents an opportunity for philanthropy,” said Nick Tilsen, founder and executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation based in South Dakota. Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, is an organizer at Standing Rock, and has been assisting the movement with communications and fundraising efforts.

“This movement is like casting a stone in a pond, and the ripple effect of what happens here at Standing Rock is going to transform America and transform Indian Country.” 

'Standing Rock is a Microcosm'

Both individual donors and a set of committed foundations played an important role in fueling the resistance to the pipeline (see more coverage here), providing support for things like daily operations of the camp, trainings, legal expenses and communications. But an important takeaway from Standing Rock is that when it comes to the needs of that community, and Native communities as a whole, the philanthropic response has really only scratched the surface. 

Less than 1 percent of American philanthropy—a 2011 report put the number at 0.3 percent—focuses on Native American communities, which experience extreme poverty, education and health issues. 

“It’s great that we’re getting this attention right now,” Tilsen said. “But this current struggle is also a microcosm of what Indian Country lives every single day.”

Tilsen, also a co-founder of the Indigenous People’s Power Project (IP3), said that while organizers have been extremely appreciative of donations coming from across the nation, he hopes that people don’t look at the pipeline as one isolated problem, but rather part of systemic equity issues.

“We’re welcoming all of the philanthropic support that’s happening up here, but I also think that we pose a question to philanthropy as a whole: What is philanthropy’s responsibility to indigenous communities in America?” 

For starters, Standing Rock water protectors have ongoing needs, including long-term legal assistance for those arrested during protests—there’s currently a legal fund available here. As the movement readies for its next stage following the Army Corps decision, the Stand with Standing Rock website continues to be a reliable entry point for donating to the tribe, following updates, and finding nonprofit partners involved. 

But even setting aside the Dakota Access pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux community was extremely vulnerable in the first place, enduring some of the highest poverty, childhood mortality, and dropout rates in the nation. When high-profile resistance moments happen, even with a spike in donations, communities are often left to rebuild and bear the burden. Beyond the pipeline fight, the community is working to develop a positive vision for its future.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are developing new funding mechanisms to support long-term investments such as wind and solar energy, sustainable housing, job creation, education, and language preservation. That could manifest in a new CDC to serve the community’s needs, said Tilsen, who has been assisting the tribe. For the time being, Thunder Valley CDC, which has existing capacity and infrastructure, has served as a conduit for foundations like Surdna and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation to fund this type of work.

There are also a number of organizations that were crucial during the protests; for example, the Standing Rock Youth Council, International Indigenous Youth Council, Indigenous Environmental Network, and IP3, which will need continuing support to expand their impact, Tilsen said.

‘What If We Doubled That?’

Among foundations that responded to Standing Rock, a similar hope has emerged that overall philanthropic support for Native communities will increase. 

Aside from the need in Native communities, Standing Rock has demonstrated the power of an indigenous-led environmental movement, which brought a unique outlook and resilience to the issues involved. The protests also rallied activists from several geographies and causes, with groups like Black Lives Matter and labor unions recognizing and responding to shared issues.

Tyler Nickerson of the Solutions Project, which makes rapid response grants for direct action and supported Standing Rock, is hoping more foundations will respond and boost the sector’s overall commitment, citing the dismaying 0.3 percent figure. 

“What if we committed to doubling that this next year, and so on, in a way that invests into those who are winning, and those who are fighting really tough fights and having really great success?” he said. 

There was a set of foundations that had an important impact, Nickerson observed, but many others simply couldn’t move fast enough, or otherwise couldn’t take the leap.

“As appreciative as I am of those who were active, there’s not enough of us. All of that money combined, plus more, really couldn’t meet the full need on the ground, and hasn’t yet transpired into a movement for indigenous rights that is much bigger and broader than Standing Rock. That’s where significant investment is needed.”

‘Don’t Be Shy. Pick Up the Phone’

Native Americans in Philanthropy, a membership-based network of nonprofits, tribal communities and foundations, saw a number of foundations grappling with how they could support the movement, and has worked to provide entry points, said CEO Sarah Eagle Heart. The organization held an educational tour of Standing Rock for funders in October, and holds periodic funder strategy calls

“We really wanted to be able to highlight philanthropy’s role in that movement, but also look at what that role might look like down the road, because Standing Rock is one of many places that are facing similar issues," Eagle Heart said. Standing Rock can be seen as both a culmination and an entry point for longstanding Native issues. 

Tilsen at Thunder Valley CDC noted a number of places where funders can get involved. In addition to organizations mentioned above, he recommends reaching out to peer funders who are already committed to Native-led groups such as the Northwest Area Foundation and the Bush Foundation, as well as newer arrivals like the Solutions Project and Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. 

“These guys are getting it. Philanthropy’s role is to put the resources into the hands of the people that can create change, and some of these philanthropic organizations have been committed to that,” Tilsen said. There are also funder intermediaries like the First Nations Development Institute and the Seventh Generation Fund that can serve an educational role. First Nations has long been a magnet for substantial grants from leading foundations and it works on a range of issues, mainly related "to strengthen American Indian economies to support healthy Native communities." Seventh Generation is "focused on supporting grassroots development through Native community empowerment and action."

Ultimately, Tilsen hopes philanthropy will recognize that the equity problems facing Native communities are problems we all share, and that Native people must be center stage, not an afterthought, in the country's equity movement.

“We have organizations … in Indian Country who are ready and ripe to continue to engage philanthropy and make an impact on our communities. Not just to fight battles like this, but actually win change in our communities,” Tilsen said. 

“I think philanthropy’s gotta not be shy. Pick up the phone, cold call some of these leaders. And when we call, pick up the phone and answer.”

Related: "Everything We Care For." The Future of Progressive Philanthropy Under Trump