We were both fighting for the same thing: our peoples’ right to be free and equal and determine our own future.
In my early 20s, I ran field operations for the Coalition of Indian Controlled School Boards (CICSB). The Indian-led school movement was the civil rights movement for Native Americans. Until the 1970s, Native American children were taken from their families and off of reservations and sent to boarding, missionary, or public schools – none of which were run by Native Americans – in order to “assimilate” them into mainstream America. We changed that by establishing the first Indian-led schools in the country, but there was still more work to be done.
At the pinnacle of CICSB’s success, in January 1975, we got Congress to pass the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. This was huge. It meant that federal government agencies could enter into contracts with – and make grants directly to – federally recognized Indian tribes. I flew to Washington, DC, to meet with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA); when I looked out the plane window, I saw the African-Americans protesting in the streets of Washington for the right to desegregate public schools. We were both fighting for the same thing: our peoples’ right to be free and equal and determine our own future.
As I sat in the BIA office being hounded on every budget detail down to how much toilet paper the Indian kids would need at Little Wound School on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, I realized that for Native Americans to truly achieve self-determination, we needed to be independent from the government. The bureaucrats were never going to give us the money we needed to be free.
Right then and there I decided to found First Nations Development Institute to work directly with Native American communities. This was a time when society believed the only way for Indians to succeed in business was to eliminate the Indian culture. Instead I used our rich, profound Indian culture as the basis for economic development.
We established the first microloan fund in the U.S., the first tribal investment model, the first Native land acquisition vehicles and the first Community Notes – the only private sector instrument for investing in community development financial institutions. Community Notes are now a $1 billion market. This was all taken from the Indian way of thinking.
Self-determination and economic empowerment of Native and Indigenous Peoples became my life’s mission and I have been living it every day since. After building First Nations into the leading Native American community development organization in the country, I founded First Peoples Worldwide, which is one of the only international organizations led by Indigenous Peoples and dedicated to the mission of promoting Indigenous economic determination and strengthening Indigenous communities. I am proud to continue this work alongside my daughter to this very day.