Redefining Indigenous Wealth with a Bold, New Opportunity: Q&A with Nick Tilsen and Gaby Strong

After a months-long selection process, the Bush Foundation selected NDN Collective as one of two organizations to receive $50 million in a community trust fund to aid in closing the racial wealth gap in the tri-state region of Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota. In the coming months, NDN Collective will begin designing grant programs for individual Indigenous people in the tri-state region while also redefining wealth on Indigenous terms. Nexus Community Partners, a Black-led organization based out of Minneapolis, was also selected and will be designing similar programming for the Black community.

In this Q&A conversation, Gaby Strong, NDN Foundation Managing Director, and Nick Tilsen, NDN Collective President and CEO, answer some critical questions about how they plan to carry out this work with the same intention and vision that NDN Collective was born out of. 

See NDN Collective’s Joint Statement with Nexus Community Partners

NDN Collective President and CEO, Nick Tilsen and NDN Foundation Managing Director, Gaby Strong.

Q: First of all, this is some pretty big and unprecedented news.  How did NDN Collective get here? 

Nick:  At the outset, NDN Collective set out to move money from white-led institutions into Indigenous-led institutions. It’s one of our core missions and tactics because philanthropy has historically under-resourced Indigenous people. NDN Collective established our organization with the purpose of moving resources from white-led institutions to our communities and we have successfully done that in over 500 Indigenous communities to date. This has been part of our journey and our mission since the beginning. 

We also understood at the outset that white supremacy and racism are prevalent in philanthropy which is why, historically, less than 3-percent of philanthropic dollars have gone to Indian Country. We wanted to ‘burn the wagon’ on that one and provide a new solution. This has been part of the plan for NDN. We had a goal to engage in this work and move resources to our communities and we have an all-Indigenous organization with the capacity and understanding of our communities to do that. 

Gaby:  This is also the direct result of movement building that has been building, and especially in the past couple of years. At NDN Collective, our mission was born out of community organizing and the movement at Standing Rock, so our messaging has always been really brave and really bold. Working to move those kinds of resources back into community has always been part of our message and mission, and talking to institutional philanthropy in a way that is not very common. 

The nonprofit sector has been conditioned to deal with institutional philanthropy in a certain way– to cajole, to convince, to be the best possible resource to receive funds, to massage our missions and visions to align whatever a philanthropic institution’s priorities or strategies might be, but at NDN Collective, we have totally flipped the script on that. Instead, we have offered philanthropy an opportunity that they have never really seen, and that’s to support Indigenous people on our own terms, to honor community self-determination, to align with us and our people. That has always been the mission and vision of NDN Collective.

We have an infrastructure at NDN Collective to do this work, and how we do that is what is going to be determined in the planning phase before we even receive the funds. 

Q: This a lot of money! What is NDN Collective’s vision for this level of funding? 

Gaby:  It is a lot of money– one of those historic, unprecedented kinds of gifts that is not seen. But when you take into account the level of funding and resourcing that goes on elsewhere, it’s not a lot. We have been used to receiving a fraction of the resources available and making do with very little. We are conditioned to believe that there is a scarcity of funds, and we compete for that fraction, when the truth is there is an abundance of resources out there. An abundance within the philanthropic sector and the truth is that people like us have very little to do with how those resources are prioritized or deployed. This community trust fund from the Bush Foundation is only a start of what needs to happen. 

With this funding, we are going to be designing programs to close the wealth gap for Indigenous people. In the mainstream, there are financial indicators of wealth, but we want to redefine wealth for ourselves as Indigenous people. In this planning process, we want to be able to work with community partners to redefine what wealth means to them. 

At NDN Collective, our mission was born out of community organizing and the movement at Standing Rock, so our messaging has always been really brave and really bold.

Of course there are areas that our families have already indicated as needs, for example, stable housing and education– those kinds of things are important, but purely defining wealth by capitalistic terms, in terms of how much money in the bank you have and what you own, we aren’t subscribing to purely capitalist terms of wealth. We want our people to determine what wealth means to them.

We know that our people value being able to have a strong cultural base, a strong connection to Indigenous languages in their home. We know our families want to be able to feed themselves in times of hardship, so having things like their own greenhouse, for example, might be a way of doing that. These are the kinds of things within a tiwahe, or family, or tiospaye, extended family, that we want to be able to support. 

Nick: To us as Native people we look at this like, “Whoa, this is so much money.” But in the magnitude of the challenges that we face, it’s not that much money. We’ve been so underresouced for a long time that this amount seems massive. So I’d like to check that. This is a big opportunity though, for sure.

This money is going to go specifically to individuals and families for closing the racial wealth gap. There is a massive wealth gap that exists. This is an opportunity to invest in families to create wealth on Indigenous terms and an opportunity and build assets. And yes, we will be working with our people to redefine what wealth is. 

Wealth has been determined in a capitalistic monetary world. It has simply been the difference between your debt and cash, equity in your assets– do you own, or do you not own. That capitalistic-society-thinking is part of why there is so much destruction in the world, why there is a disconnect in our values. 

We need to build wealth for the purpose of creating sustainability and stability for our families.

We need to build wealth for the purpose of creating sustainability and stability for our families. It’s important for our families to have homes, a good education, to be creating our own revenue and our own way to feed ourselves. Some of the vision for this is to create a way for these resources to allow them to architect their own future, to pay student debt, for example, for sending children to college, starting a small business in their community, to make home improvements, down payment assistance, so you can get a business loan– ways to start providing for your family, but also with cultural and spiritual assets.

Culture and spirituality is one of the reasons we’re still here. Funds can potentially be used to support the building of a ceremony house, support buying a chainsaw for cutting wood for sundance or ceremony– that’s part of health and wealth. We are looking at creative ways to do those things, to improve the quality of life and redefine wealth on our own terms and in the form of grants to individuals and families. 

Q: How is this different from re-granting? 

Gaby: Regranting often implies we’re working as an intermediary on behalf of a philanthropic institution, and we don’t use that language at all at NDN Collective. We don’t define ourselves as an intermediary organization because we are not carrying out the strategies of another organization– we carry out our own mission. We are deploying resources to community that honors community self-determination. In this case, we are not deploying resources to other organizations or other programs to do it. We are deploying it to individuals and families. They are going to architect their own path to what they define as wealth for them. This is where it’s very different from regranting or working through an intermediary organization.

Nick: This is not regranting to organizations. This is moving resources to individuals, for the purpose of closing the wealth gap and creating opportunity for individual Indigenous people. This is supporting Indigenous solutions on Indigenous terms, and not on the terms of any one else.

Q: Do you consider this to be a form of reparations? 

Nick:  No. I don’t. This isn’t’ reparations. Systematic racism and historical oppression is what has created inequality in society today. I don’t consider giving back dollars here and there in small amounts, reparations. Reparations need to be system-wide. Reparations need to have the impact that the stealing of our land had on us. It needs to have the impact that slavery had. I don’t believe we can call these things reparations in terms of systems. In order to truly define think as reparations, it has to be systems wide. 

What I do think this is, is like casting a stone in a pond by taking a significant step in acknowledging that individual and institutional wealth in America has been built on the backs of Black slave labor, the genocide of Indigenous people and the theft of Indigenous land– that’s one thing I like about what Bush did here in acknowledging that as reasoning behind this monetary commitment– it is casting the stone in the pond. It’s saying this needs to happen and this is what we can contribute to this. 

The root word of reparations is repair and we are heading hopefully into an era of repair. Repairing what has been done to the Black and Indigenous people of this land, and this is a step in the right direction. These types of actions can lead to true systems wide reparations, but for me, it has to become system-wide. Returning land back that was stolen? — Now you’re talking about direct action. You want repair? Give the land back. You stole it. Give it back. This can create the conditions for reparations to happen. 

Gaby:  In the larger scheme of things, is this reparations?– No. But this is a step in the right direction that all of institutional philanthropy needs to take notice of and needs to start moving in this direction. When we think about institutional philanthropy and where their assets came from in the first place- the origins of their wealth, which is hoarded, within that capitalist system, they live off the interests of these major investments and endowments– a very small percentage of that is deployed back into community for “charitable purposes.” When we look at the origins of that sector, it really is an extension of colonialism.

When we talk about colonialism or trauma, we often hear about historical trauma, but the trauma continues today in many ways. Every pipeline that is built is an extension of colonialism, every murdered or missing Indigenous woman or girl is an extension of that trauma. Colonialism is an extension by which philanthropy does its work because it’s built from that original system designed to remove assets from Indigenous Peoples and exploit the work of our Black relatives as well. And this is not something that happened in the distant past; colonialism is carried out each and every day in the way institutions make decisions.

In the larger scheme of things, is this reparations?– No. But this is a step in the right direction that all of institutional philanthropy needs to take notice of and needs to start moving in this direction.

When you look at who is on the board of major decision-making boards, not advisory boards — there’s a ton of advisory boards out there, but that’s the operative word, ‘advisory’. That doesn’t mean we as Indigenous people have ultimate control or authority within those systems, and that’s what white supremacy is. White supremacy is where the decision-making is held. Within those institutions, they are predominantly Euroamerican, heterosexual male-dominated institutions where that decision-making authority is held. This is colonialism continuing today. 

It’s only within the past 18 months that we’ve seen an increase in philanthropic giving into BIPOC communities, with a recognition of a racial justice reckoning happening in our country, and changes in some decision-making bodies. The question will be, is this sustained? Is this really going to sustain over time and what more significant changes can be made? Working with our partners and allies like Nexus in this, we are part of this movement of redeploying resources, moving resources back to Black and Indigenous communities. What we’re doing is we’re messaging in a real and authentic way about real power shifts, not trying to convince and cajole, but about real power shifts and real movement of resources and redeployment of resources. That’s what will make the significant change, and it is. It’s happening.

Q: How is this funding, which is Naming the root of injustice for Black and Indigenous people, an opportunity to talk about collective liberation?

Gaby: This movement for racial justice that we are all part of, this is what brings us together. We all share this space. This is our Oceti Sakowin region and the region of our Anishinaabe and Ojibwe people. It’s the “tri-state region,” as the Bush Foundation puts definition to. But these are our homelands, and our Black brothers and sisters who are also here who are working to make this a better place for all of us to live safely and with sovereignty, with our Nations and our bodies. We do this work together.

When I look at Repa Mekha at Nexus, who is now the CEO, I think of how long we have both been doing this work together for our people.  Thirty years ago, I was in the Twin Cities, and at the time, fresh out of college. I took on a project director position that shortly became an executive director position in what is now one of the most enduring resources in the Twin Cities for Native youth, and that’s Ain Dah Yung, which in Ojibwe means ‘our home’ which  started out as a shelter for our houseless young Native people– a lot of Dakota youth, Ojibwe youth, Ho-chunk youth in the Twin cities at the time– and now it’s a multi-service, multi-resource organization with several different sites. I spent 16 years there. Repa was at Freeport West, a similar resource for African American young men. 

To come from that, the beginning of our work, to this moment of transformation and being part of that transformation, is a beautiful example of synergy and intention. I remember conversations at that time when I was that young woman, remembering thinking, I want this work to be more than an ambulance waiting at the bottom of the cliff. I want it to be in this place where we can do more– where it’s not just about emergency service, or crisis response, but that we can support real solution building, so that our young people, our people are not always disproportionately represented within all these socioeconomic disparities. We know it’s a struggle. It is a real struggle, but we know that our communities have the wisdom, brilliance, ingenuity, innovation, to put forth real solutions, and they need to be invested in and fully resourced long term, not little trunks of money, nickel-and-diming little projects for a year. That’s not working. Sometimes this does more harm than good. We need to seriously invest for a long period of time to reel in resource solutions. I see this as just the beginning of being able to do that. 

I want this work to be more than an ambulance waiting at the bottom of the cliff. I want it to be in this place where we can do more– where it’s not just about emergency service, or crisis response, but that we can support real solution building.

Nick: This country wouldn’t have been possible without the exploitation and oppression of Black and Indigenous people by the wealthy elite. Archibald Bush of the Bush Foundation was part of the company 3M, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing company who makes all of the Post-It notes you see, your scotch tape, things that are all throughout society. There are companies like 3M whose literal existence wouldn’t have existed without the stealing of Indigenous people’s land and the economic engine of slavery. Those things that Black and Indigenous people are experiencing collectively have resulted in the the lowest life expectancy in the western hemisphere, lowest graduation rates, highest murder rates, highest drug and alcohol rates, highest diabetes rates. We have all of the indicators of perpetual poverty and struggle. We have those indicators together. 

Throughout history, what has happened in many situations is that Black and Indigenous communities have been pitted against each other. Sometimes for a ‘battle for the bottom’ on who has got it worse. The reality is, we’re fighting for prosperity, liberation and the path forward. This is an acknowledgement that Black and Indigenous people have experienced systematic oppression in society today and the current oppression happening is directly impacting our lives. This is a way to invest into solutions that are coming from organizations, movements and communities that have lived experience of doing this kind of work. 

There is a big opportunity for collective liberation because as we dismantle white supremacy– and I always like to remind people, we are in the active dismantling of white supremacy, we’re in it, we’re dismantling it as we speak– there is an opportunity for healing between our communities, for shared prosperity. Our liberation as Indigenous people is not on the backs of our Black brothers and sisters. It’s an opportunity to collaborate and communicate what prosperity means to our people. It’s an opportunity to address anti-Blackness to Indigenous people. It’s an opportunity for the Black community to address erasure of Indigenous people in their communities. 

…we are in the active dismantling of white supremacy, we’re in it, we’re dismantling it as we speak…

Our communities are rising up and addressing systems of power and privilege and that active dismantling is creating some new opportunities here. In this new opportunity space, we are going to be able to learn from each other. Co-learning together and walking side-by-side in that struggle will not only be a good thing for our communities, but for the country, our movements and the world. Those are some of the opportunities that I see for collective liberation. I think we’re going to learn a lot in these next couple years doing this work side-by-side.

Q: What is the process going to be for distributing $50million to IndigeNous people in Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota?

Gaby:  We’re going to be figuring this out over the next several months. We know that big dreams and big visions require a really solid plan, and that’s what we’re going to do over the next nine months or so. We are bringing a full-time staff person on board in January to lead that planning process which includes community engagement. We have an inkling of what that might look like, but we want to check with our people, allow them to put their thoughts into it, and contribute to it.

What we do know is that by this time next year, we want to be able to begin distributing resources to individuals and families at that time. We’ll have an open process announced sometime in 2022. We have some obvious thoughts about housing, student debt, but we also want to be able to honor the spiritual health and cultural aspects of our life because that’s what makes us healthy and well. We want to ensure that holistic definition of what we consider wealth is part of that process, so it isn’t just financial assistance, but it is a stepping stone, it is an investment into allowing families to build their own prosperity in their own way. 

Nick: What’s important to note is that we aren’t just going to distribute based on giving funds to every Native person in the region, so this isn’t like ‘per cap’. What we are going to do is support Native families and individuals with things like housing, education, buying land back, to build a house. These things we see as assets for Native people. This is an opportunity for our people, and to have that opportunity, we have to meet each other halfway. For example, to put down payment assistance on a home, on a loan, and try to make it accessible to our people. We have some wild ideas that we’re not ready to disclose yet, but it will look like assistance for loans, home improvement grants, etc. We’ll have more to share about that after the planning phase. 

And yes, it’s really important to note that we won’t have the money right away. We are in a planning stage. To give away that type of money, we have to have a plan. Money given also has tax implications, that’s why it takes planning. We want to make sure that this funding to individuals has the best possible and highest impact on Native families. We also understand that the IRS targets people of color when new resources come in, so we want to make sure we’re looking at all the scenarios, looking at the impacts on everyone. 

We are in a planning stage. To give away that type of money, we have to have a plan.

We have an opportunity to create something totally new here, something that works for us. That’s where there is a planning state, and we want to be transparent about that. We know there are other orgs in the tri-state area, and this is going to be a process of reaching out to key partners in the design process, so it complements what’s already happening. 

Q: How do you hope this will impact the field of philanthropy? How can other groups and individuals in the philanthropy space learn from this and take bold action themselves? 

Gaby: All of philanthropy needs to start paying attention. It’s time to just change your way of working, philanthropy. It’s long overdue. What really is frustrating is that these kinds of major institutions often spend so much time and so much money in their internal planning with people that have nothing to do or little connection to the very communities they say they want to impact, or the issues they care about. There are high-dollar consulting firms facilitating planning within these institutions that really should be deployed to community, to people that know these issues and know the solutions. You hear buzzwords like DEI– diversity, equity, inclusion– within these institutions and there’s a lot of planning that goes on around them, rephrasing terminology with no real action, progress or change, and that’s the frustrating part about this institution called philanthropy.

A lot of activity going on in philanthropy doesn’t necessarily mean change. There’s been some real clear messaging going into that institution for a really long time and it’s time you just do it and make the change. Stop wasting money and resources playing around with phrases like DEI, and change up your institution, your structure, who is part of it and change how you’re deploying resources to community– today.

All of philanthropy needs to start paying attention. It’s time to just change your way of working, philanthropy. It’s long overdue.

Nick: Philanthropy has been hoarding money, and money that has come from the oppression of Black and Indigenous people. Philanthropy has been stingy, but it’s not surprising because philanthropy is a byproduct of capitalism and has been one of the mechanisms of white supremacy. All of their money has come from places that have largely been destructive to Black, Indigenous, Immigrants, workers, people who make society work here. That wealth has been hoarded and they decide who it goes to. A lot of times, the money never makes it to the biggest impacted problem areas. 

The current structure of philanthropy isn’t working. Since the beginning, the non-profit tax code, the creation of public and private sectors in America, education has declined, the separation between the rich and poor has decreased, climate change is bad, and democracy crumbling. All of the things that philanthropy says it’s been there to strengthen, it’s been an epic failure. 

One has to understand the stage at which philanthropy is today. Philanthropy needed to make big bold decisions to not perpetuate problems. My hope is that by this big step that the Bush Foundation is taking, that it sends an indicator to all of philanthropy that you have to act now, think outside the box, and think bigger and bolder than you have before. If a small foundation in the Twin Cities can do something radical like this, so can you. Our hope is it creates a domino effect and we so more resources go ot Black, Indigenous, Immigrant communities throughout the country to address the inequities that happen in society.

In general, I think big and bold– I think foundations should be sunsetting their foundations and giving all their wealth away. Wealth hoarding is what is perpetuating problems in society today. I’ve been telling foundations that you should have a solution to give all of your resources back to Black and Indigenous people. 

The concept for philanthropy is that we would perpetually have this money forever in the foundation world, but what about building a world where that is no longer needed because people’s needs are being met, where we are making more responsible decisions with climate, Mother Earth, and education. I have a big vision for what philanthropy should be doing. My hope is that this is the beginning of a domino effect. Maybe it starts to spark conversation. That is what my hope is because at the core of what NDN Collective is and thinks about, is the sole purpose of investing into the self-determination of Indigenous people. 

In general, I think big and bold– I think foundations should be sunsetting their foundations and giving all their wealth away.

I believe in our purpose as Indigenous people. Our innovation, creativity, our resilience, that if Indigenous people are resourced properly, it is going to create radical change from the most impacted areas. What’s good for Indigenous people is going to be good for many people throughout society. For this to happen. There is going to be healing that happens. White people need to address their own fragility. And for Indigenous people, it’s a combination of our ceremonies and understanding of how systems work in society. Society is just at a point where it is beginning to acknowledge those things. 

As Indigenous people, we have to make sure we don’t get colonized again in the process though, doing this work. We have to rebuild on our terms. The people most impacted, the people closest to the pain, should be helping to lead society to a better world.

I like to imagine what happens when our warriors and matriarchs and families have a strong home to live in, where all of their needs are being met. Suddenly those people have the opportunity to do so much more. Imagining they are thriving and at their best. These are big things that directly impact the lives of Native people and that’s where these resources are going to be going to. I hope we see the domino effect in giving stolen and hoarded wealth back to Black and Indigenous people, and I’m hopeful this is where we’re headed.