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Nick Tilsen · October 14, 2019

NDN Collective Celebrates One Year of Building Indigenous Power

This moment in history calls upon us to bind together. Radical change is at our fingertips, and we must keep reaching, building and fighting.

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day of 2018, the NDN Collective launched  as a new organization dedicated to building Indigenous power. Since that day, we have hit the ground running, setting out on a visionary journey to tear down systems of oppression, to fight for climate justice, to close the education inequality gap, to challenge white supremacy within philanthropy, and invest into Indigenous self-determination. 

As we reflect upon our first year as an organization, it’s important to also acknowledge the groundwork that supported our vision and enabled us to make it this far. While NDN Collective publicly and officially launched one year ago, the body of work taking place right now was actually years in the making. The very concept of the NDN Collective, its theory of change and its proposition for radical transformation was born out of the roots of the work taking place in my home community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

NDN Collective Origins

From 2007 to 2018, I had the opportunity to help build the groundbreaking Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TVCDC). This non-profit organization created inspiration on Pine Ridge and created an ecosystem of related programs ranging from Sustainable Housing, Food Sovereignty, Youth Development, Lakota Language Revitalization, Social Enterprise and Workforce Development, to name a few. Thunder Valley CDC was the first organization of its kind in the U.S., where Indigenous people were actively shaping their own reality, sustainably, culturally, and in close relationship with community. 

The innovative work of Thunder Valley CDC was soon being recognized, and our story was lifted up and highlighted around the country.  We started getting calls from Tribes and Indigenous communities from all over. Over a three-year window, from 2015 to 2018, we were contacted by 43 different Tribes and 27 Native non-profits, coming from 70 different Indigenous Nations throughout North America. They all wanted to do similar things that Thunder Valley CDC was doing, but within the context of their own tribes, their own climate, and the spirit of their homelands. I would tell other Indigenous leaders, “First of all, we are barely pulling this off, but I am willing to share what we are learning if you come here.” 

Indigenous communities and leaders started coming to Pine Ridge and visiting Thunder Valley CDC.  During their visits, we openly shared with them the ups and downs, and the ebb and flow of what we were doing. I would hear story after story from these visitors about different things happening in their respective communities that called for similar solutions, and I was drawn to do something. I started to think about and explore what it would take to build an ecosystem of support to help other communities implement their visions while continuing to build a movement for radical change in Indigenous communities.

I went to the drawing board and started looking at the data.  I realized that not only was there less than 0.4% of philanthropy going to Indigenous communities, but that funding to Indigenous communities was actually on a decline. Resources for Indigenous people remain critical to moving the dial in our communities. 

This disparity in investment into Indigenous communities was outrageous to me, because as I realized this, the movement in Standing Rock was also happening at that very moment– a movement that I and many people from my region of the Oceti Sakowin were deeply involved in participating in and shaping. We were interrupting the narrative, our people and our movement was being recognized by the masses, and we were clearly centerstage at some of the most important issues facing humanity today, like climate, justice and equity.  But still, and even amidst all the attention to the historic moment in Standing Rock, our movement continued to be under-funded and our communities under-invested in. 

To me, that was it. I recognized that it was time to create something new, but it was important that we did it in such a way that shifted the power dynamics that existed. From 2017 to 2018, I reached out to over 50 different Indigenous organizations and leaders, to over 30 philanthropic partners and begin creating and envisioning a new ecosystem. This idea eventually became the NDN Collective, whose mission is to “Build the Collective Power of Indigenous Peoples, communities and Nations to exercise our inherent right to self-determination, while fostering a world that is built on a foundation of justice and equity for all people and the planet.” 

I share this very abbreviated version of this history because every society and organization has an origin story, and these origin stories are not only critical to our identity, but sharing them is a fundamental part of being Indigenous, as we must always honor where we come from. 

The NDN Collective is an organization that was created by Indigenous people, for Indigenous people. It was created out of principals of organizing and justice. It grew from a directly impacted community and out of the lived experience of those of us who have been in the trenches doing the work and making sacrifices to improve the lives of our people and protect Mother Earth.


NDN Collective: ONe Year In Review

Throughout this past year we have grown from three staff to 15, and in 2020 we will breach 20 staff on the NDN Collective team. This growth is important because we have to ensure that our organization’s capacity keeps up with the appetite of the vision and the needs of our movement. In our first year, we have had the opportunity to support several different Indigenous-led initiatives and actions related to Indigenous movement-building. 

NDN Sues the State of South Dakota

We have engaged as a plaintiff on a lawsuit suing the State of South Dakota for passage of the “Riot Boosting Act,” which was an attempt to chill free speech and criminalize organizing against the Keystone XL pipeline.  We sued, we won, and we protected our right to organize in protection of Mother Earth.  

We extend our gratitude to the ACLU of South Dakota (who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the NDN Collective and our partners), to other plaintiffs including the Indigenous Environmental Network, Dakota Rural Action, the Sierra Club and others who all played important roles in this work. We also continue to stand in solidarity with the Protect the Protest and Protect Dissent organizers and coalition members who are still actively fighting unjust and illegal anti-protest laws.

NDN Helps Sacred Site Protection at Mauna Kea

We have supported the Indigenous resistance movement in Hawaii to protect Mauna Kea from construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, joining the effort as a strategic partner to the Hawai’i Unity and Liberation Institute (HULI).  Through this partnership we provided grants, strategic advice to amplify their narrative, and partnered with Brett Issac and Navajo Power to deploy a team to Mauna Kea to help build solar trailers on the frontlines of the movement.

NDN Strategizes TO Defeat the ALberta Tar Sands

We also partnered with our relatives from Indigenous Climate Action and the Indigenous Environmental Network on a gathering near theTar Sands of Alberta, Canada to connect international Indigenous protectors and organizers to build relationships and begin creating a unified strategy to stop expansion of the Alberta Tar Sands.

NDN Helps Launch the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition

We played a key role in the launching of the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition to help close the education achievement gap for Native children, and create new models of community-based Indigenous education.

NDN Marches for CLimate Justice

We marched on the streets of Rapid City, South Dakota  for climate justice with Tokata Iron Eyes and Greta Thunberg.

Launching the NDN Changemakers Fellowship Program

We Launched the NDN Changemakers Fellowship program, receiving over 700 applications from hundreds of Indigenous Nations from throughout Turtle Island and surrounding island Nations.

NDN Builds Solidarity through Partnership

We have reached out to the world of philanthropy and created over 20 partnerships, challenged them, pushed them and collaborated with them.

Development of the NDN Fund

The development of the NDN Fund, which is dedicated to financing regenerative community development, renewable energy, social enterprise and regenerative agriculture, is well under way.

NDN’s storytelling platform comes to life

We are also effectively building and growing a multimedia storytelling platform to tell our own stories, to lift up solutions, and build solid tools for organizing and amplifying our movement.


We are a new organization, but we are moving fast. Our people and our communities need us to move quickly.

We are organizers, activists, grantmakers, teachers, social entrepreneurs, storytellers, artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, doers and changemakers. We are the NDN Collective and we here to keep fighting for a world built on a foundation of justice and equity for all people and the planet. 

Thank you for believing in us and standing with us. This moment in history calls upon us to bind together. Radical change is at our fingertips, and we must keep reaching, building and fighting. The future of our people and Nations depends on our ability to Defend, Develop, and Decolonize.  And we must always remember that in all we do, we must meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Mitakuye Oyasin. We are all related.

Nick Tilsen,
NDN Collective President and CEO 

Nick Tilsen
Nick Tilsen

Nick Tilsen, President & CEO, is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Tilsen has over 18 years of experience building place-based innovations that have the ability to inform systems change solutions around climate resiliency, sustainable housing and equitable community development. He founded NDN Collective to scale these place-based solutions while building needed philanthropic, social impact investment, capacity and advocacy infrastructure geared towards building the collective power of Indigenous Peoples. Tilsen has received numerous fellowships and awards from Ashoka, Rockefeller Foundation, Bush Foundation and the Social Impact Award from Claremont-Lincoln University. He has an honorary doctorate degree from Sinte Gleska University.

Follow @NickTilsen on Twitter.

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