A Push to Fund Lasting Solutions to a Sioux Reservation’s Deep Poverty

  Sopotnicki/Shutterstock

 Sopotnicki/Shutterstock

When we talk about the rise of wealth inequality in the United States, we often talk about the shrinking middle class—how assets like a livable wage, retirement funds and healthcare are increasingly out of reach for more Americans. But there’s also a level of poverty in parts of the country on par with war-torn nations, and even a booming philanthropic sector isn’t sufficiently addressing it

There’s no clearer example than the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe—the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 and the American Indian Movement-led occupation in 1973. Pine Ridge has around 90 percent unemployment, infant mortality 300 percent higher than national average, and average life expectancy of just 47 years for men. 

Those statistics are shocking in a country with more millionaires and billionaires than any other nation by far. Meanwhile, Native American communities also comprise a major blind spot for American philanthropy, receiving less than 1 percent of total giving (there’s not a ton of data, but one 2011 report put the number at 0.3 percent). This, despite suffering some of the worst economic hardship in the country.

One member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe is working to offer relief to Pine Ridge through her own giving, fundraising and programming, but also efforts to direct others with wealth toward the region. 

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Most recently, Twila True, founder of the True Sioux Hope Foundation, organized a gathering on the reservation of more than 150 family philanthropists and celebrities. The event was an effort to drum up donations, distribute food, mattresses and other supplies, as well as introduce wealthy donors to a level of need in the U.S. they might not have recognized otherwise. The event was coordinated with Family to Family and the Global Family Guild networks of donors. 

There might be something unsettling at the thought of a group of wealthy people being shuttled around one of the poorest parts of the country, but increasing understanding and making connections with Native American communities is a big hurdle when it comes to securing funds. 

When the 2016 resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline was taking shape in 2016, there was a set of funders that had such connections and were able to take the lead in moving funds quickly. But there’s also a big cultural and knowledge gap between the philanthropic community and these areas, which slowed giving. There’s often no obvious one-stop shop to channel funds, although there are intermediaries like the First Nations Development Institute, the Seventh Generation Fund, and Native Americans in Philanthropy. Donations can be made directly to tribes, and some reservations have their own Community Development Corporations

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Standing Rock demonstrators did end up rallying a large number of supporters, and recently the tribe picked up a $250,000 award from Wallace Global Fund. There have certainly been other funders inspired by the movement. 

Making connections in these areas is crucial for philanthropy, which is often cumbersome and trapped in its own rigid customs and networks. Surrounding the pipeline demonstrations, Native Americans in Philanthropy held a similar educational tour of Standing Rock to introduce funders to the longstanding issues that run much deeper than the pipeline itself.

The Pine Ridge tour marks a big step for Twila True and True Sioux Hope Foundation, which has been around since 2014. True currently lives in California, where she’s CEO of an investment firm. She and her husband are among the lead donors to the foundation, which has focused largely on hunger, child mortality and other immediate needs, including setting up a children’s safe home and a charitable thrift store.

But as it’s grown, the foundation has also been working on long-term solutions like K-12 education, job training, college prep, scholarships, and other programming, which will be staffed and operated by people on the reservation. 

Prompting a turnaround in such a depressed area is a long-term effort that exceeds the limits of philanthropy alone. But True seems well aware that the area is in need of more than Band-Aids, and her connection to the region and the tribe provides her with an opportunity to serve as a bridge for new investments. And maybe she can act as a loudspeaker, letting more of the country know that there’s a community with such tremendous needs right in the heart of the United States.