Native Nation-Building

Native  Nation-Building
Spans Strategies & Generations

By Nick Coleman

The Bush Foundation’s work to support the self-determination of 23 Native nations builds on relationships formed across decades of support for Bush Fellows and for Native-focused education, legal, environmental and community projects.

Since 2009, we’ve supported tribes using various strategies to exercise their self-determination, some with support from the Bush Foundation — from intertribal energy initiatives, to governance assessments, to programs that honor the successes of Native nations, to leadership development programs for Native Nation Rebuilders, to efforts to recreate culturally authentic governmental systems. What follow are just a few stories of the amazing work going on across nations, strategies and generations.

Erma Vizenor
The Last Standing Woman
Citizens harvesting
Citizens of the White Earth Nation harvesting manoomin (wild rice), food they believe is a gift from the creator, in the traditional way.

Erma Vizenor came home to White Earth Nation in 1991, returning from Harvard University with a suitcase full of books. A 1988 Bush Leadership Fellow with a master’s degree in community organizing, she planned to spend the summer writing her doctoral dissertation about administrative planning and social policy. Those plans changed, however, when a group of Anishinaabe elders came to her with tobacco—a traditional token of respect—and a request to speak for them in their fight against corruption in the tribal government.  “I put my books away,” Vizenor recalls. “They stayed unpacked for five years.”

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Justin Beaulieu
A Nation-Building Era
Red lake Eagle
The Eagle sculpture outside Seven Clans Casino in Red Lake has a 30-foot wingspan.

There’s no one way to do nation-building,” says Jaime A. Pinkham,vice president of the Foundation’s work with Native nations. “Each tribe moves forward from their unique political, cultural, social and economic situation. Some tribes are shoring up their existing governing functions while others want to take a close look at whethertheir current constitution expresses their culture and supports their contemporary sovereign right to protect their land and people.

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Honoring success in tribal governance
Fishing traditionally with nets
The Red Lake people fish in the traditional way using nets.

The resurgence of walleye in Red Lake is one of the great conservation success stories in the nation—a role model for tribal governance that was recognized in October 2013 by the Honoring Nations award, a prestigious program supported by the Bush Foundation that acknowledges excellence in tribal governance.

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Tribal Governance
Rebuilders win election to tribal council
LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III
LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III is among several builders serving on tribal council.

As the new chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Dave Archambault II is among a number of Native Nation Rebuilders to be elected to a tribal council position in the last few years.

Archambault was part of the inaugural cohort of Rebuilders, selected in 2010. Two other Rebuilders from Cohort 1 have also since won a place on tribal council. The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe re-elected Boyd Gourneau (Cohort 1) as vice-chairman in 2012. And LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III (Rebuilders Cohort 1) won election in 2012 as the District 3 representative to tribal council of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. In talking about his experience as a Rebuilder, Fairbanks (below) said that it had “opened my eyes to so many different things about what other tribes are doing and some of the successes that they’re having.


Visiting tribal nations

At the invitation of the Red Lake Nation, the Bush Foundation’s Board of Directors held its May 2013 meeting at Red Lake. Chairman Floyd “Buck” Jourdain Jr. welcomed Board and staff to tribal lands; Rebuilders Sam Strong (Cohort 1), Justin Beaulieu (Cohort 2) and Darrell Kingbird (Cohort 4) accompanied the guests on a bus tour of several sites seldom visited by those who are not Red Lake citizens. The culmination of the day was visit to the Point of Red Lake, a body of water that is sacred to the Red Lake people.

In August 2013, four members of the Foundation’s staff traveled to Pine Ridge, home of the Oglala Sioux. Hosted by Rebuilder Tina Merdanian (Cohort 1), staff met President Bryan Brewer and visited the Wounded Knee burial site. Eleven of 90 Native Nation Rebuilders and several Bush Fellows are Oglala Sioux, including 2014 Fellow Richard Iron Cloud.

Sioux Tribes Announce Wind Power Collaborative at Clinton Global Initiative

Eight Sioux Tribes in the Foundation’s region are collaborating to develop the largest wind power production facility in the United States—a partnership the tribes announced with the help of former U.S. President Bill Clinton last summer at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative America. Six of the eight tribes were present.This historic alliance—involving the Cheyenne River Sioux, Crow Creek Sioux, Flandreau Santee Sioux, Oglala Sioux, Rosebud Sioux, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, Standing Rock Sioux and Yankton Sioux—would capture the considerable wind power on Sioux reservation land through a project funded by more than $1.75 billion in bonds issued through a multitribal power authority. The Foundation provided support to bring the tribal leaders together for early conversation about how they might work across their governments to jointly develop their resources for the first time in history.

Investing in the great ideas and leadership of Native people
From left, Jen Ford Reedy and Jaime A. Pinkham of the Bush Foundation meet Oglala Sioux Tribal President Bryan Brewer in August 2013

Over the last four decades, the Bush Foundation has invested in a variety of needs identified by tribes. For instance, growing the infrastructure and leadership capacity of tribally controlled colleges was an emerging movement through the 1970s and 1980s, when the Foundation awarded more than $13 million in grants toward faculty development, indigenous language instruction and new facilities at institutions ranging from Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota, to Sinte Gleska College in Mission, South Dakota.

By the 1990s, tribal communities turned to the Foundation for help building the capacity of tribal courts through nearly $2 million in investments in tribal law libraries in Native nations such as Red Lake, Turtle Mountain, Spirit Lake, Mille Lacs, Standing Rock and Rosebud.

And over those same decades, countless grants have supported a variety of community service programs focused on cultural preservation, domestic violence prevention, wellness and youth services.

The Bush Fellowship Program has provided vital support to tribes by investing in individual leaders who have gone on to create reforms in education, social and environmental sciences, the arts, business and government—local, state, federal and tribal.

The Foundation launched the Native Nation Rebuilders Program in 2010 to make a more concerted investment in existing and emerging leaders in tribal communities by arming them with deeper knowledge about how nation-building can strengthen their tribes.

Today, the Foundation’s work with Native nations includes funding for a wide range of projects.

For tribal nations like Red Lake and White Earth that have determined constitutional reform is the way in which they want to pursue nation-building, the Foundation has provided support for activities the tribes feel will help them best approach that reform, including capacity building and citizen education. “The main objective for these nations is to design governing institutions that are actually theirs, not the ones imposed on them by the federal government,” said John Fetzer, associate on the Native Nations Team. “Governments that are authentic to their unique needs will help them achieve their own development and political goals.”

The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe used Foundation support for negotiation of a comprehensive tax agreement with the State of South Dakota and a series of small Foundation grants to educate its people about constitutional reform, while the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation has used Foundation support to implement MHA Nation Tomorrow, a citizen-led governance reform project. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians used a grant to upgrade their election procedures to increase their citizens’ confidence and turnout to elect their leaders and decide major policy initiatives.