“Enduring and Resilient:” Tia Oros Peters on Indigenous Power and Philanthropy

by Edgar Villanueva

In writing my forthcoming book Decolonizing Wealth (coming October 16, 2018), I had the honor and the pleasure of interviewing dozens of leaders from foundations, community organizations, and financial institutions. I asked them to speak candidly about the dynamics of race and power that they encounter in their work with money, and I asked them to share ideas for how we could decolonize wealth. From the hours and hours of audio recordings, and pages and pages of transcriptions, only a few snippets could be included in the book. So I’m happy to share some of the outtakes here.

Tia Oros Peters (Shiwi) serves as the Executive Director of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples. She is also one of the founding mothers of the Global Indigenous Women’s Caucus. Tia has been engaged in community organizing, and national policy work for social, cultural and environmental justice for nearly three decades.

I began by asking her to tell me the story of the Seventh Generation Fund, which is fairly unique among philanthropic organizations.

Tia: This year (2017) is the 40th anniversary of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples. In the early years it was called the Tribal Sovereignty Program. Its first official meeting was in the spring of 1977, and it grew out of the White Roots of Peace Caravan that traveled all over North America in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The caravan was comprised of Native leaders, clan mothers, young people, educators, philosophers, visionaries, medicine people, during that time of the civil rights and social justice movements. I often say that our organization was born from campfire conversations and kitchen table conversations, because as the caravan traveled and camped they visited with Native people all over, talked and shared and learned.

And what people were saying was: “We don’t want a piece of the American pie. Our lives are not about taking that slice of Americana and ingesting it, making it our own. In fact from what I have learned of that time, quite frankly that acculturation has been shoved down our throats for decades, and we were choking on it. What the Peoples said they wanted then, and what we still strive for is our languages. We want to plant our own gardens. Rebuild our communities on our own terms. We want our self-sufficiency. We want sustainability. We want our own future. We have a right to our own dream, and that is not the American dream. We have a right to our own dream.”

In 1977 on this very street [NOTE: we were meeting at the UN Plaza], Indigenous Peoples, including some of the founders of the Seventh Generation Fund and some of the parents and grandparents of people in that room including Brian Monongye, from Hopi, whom you just met, were here. They sprinkled corn meal at the United Nations, and they spoke at the United Nations. Hopi Grandpas David Monongye came and Thomas Banyacya, Brian’s grandfathers. Grandpa Thomas spoke at the United Nations at a time when Indigenous peoples had no place there. He spoke about climate change coming, about prophecy, about the rights and responsibilities of Indigenous peoples. After he spoke, a massive storm came into the city. There was flooding, and they ended up closing the UN. You know the power of our people to bring a message.

The legacy of our organization is tied to the international Indigenous arena from these earlier beginnings. Our work takes place multi-generationally and mindfully. I think that’s why we survived, because we not only listen to the people, we take their lead. Our approach is community generated and accountable. We don’t say, “Hey, you need this, and that will make you a better organization, a project and a community. This will empower you.” No, no, no. To hear from our people themselves, that’s how we were founded. That’s our organizational DNA.

Edgar: How do you decolonize your mind, personally, given that you work in Native communities but also have one foot in the world of foundations?

Tia: I think if we think of it as two worlds we become schizophrenic and fragmented, and I think that’s one of the reasons that many of our Peoples may feel split, or confused. It’s been forced on us in like the boarding school: “You’re not from that world anymore. You’re in this world,” and all of that. It’s a colonial mindset and created doubt and disempowerment. So I’ve started saying more what I believe is the truth for us, that there’s one world, but with multiple realities. There’s a spiritual reality and the metaphysical reality, the mundane, a foundation reality, all these realities that come together within and around us. How can they come together, so that we’re not busted open, split, torn apart or devoured by one or the other?

I remember one of my first meetings at a foundation that I won’t name. I was accompanying a senior colleague, just tagging along, to listen and learn. He—the foundation program officer— made us wait a long time and acted like we really didn’t have a meeting. Of course we did, we’d scheduled it weeks before. Of course we had traveled across the country to see this person. Of course they had a lot of money and it seemed had welcomed the meeting. Of course we needed to raise funds. He described the programs they had and asked how we could fit in them. He even made the gesture, drawing a square in the air: How were we going to fit in their box?

My senior colleague handled it really well, taking him through our model and our way of doing work, methodology. Which was not about fitting in the box, but instead was an opportunity to recognize what has been working for a really long time, for centuries. We come from—it’s not even a decolonized mindset, it’s an Indigenized mindset. It’s kind of like you see those medical models in books for doctors, and they start with the male body. That’s the standard from which you start. I often wonder why aren’t they starting from a woman’s perspective, given that we all come from women, and Mother Earth?

It remains tough. We are not always welcome. It may always be a struggle. We have to risk being laughed at or barely tolerated. Sometimes we may even want to go back to our hotel room frustrated or want to cry and kick a pillow. Then we must tell ourselves – as I have myself, and as I tell younger staff, just as I was told years ago: “Then there comes the time to dry your eyes, look forward, move forward, because we would not be here if people didn’t do that before us. We have a responsibility to fulfill. Do it.”

We are doing this for those who are coming, and so it can’t be about ourselves personally. It’s bigger than any single person or organization.

Money is not power. If you can buy someone’s heart and spirit, that’s weak on them and on you. Some think that’s how change is going to happen? Really? That’s how you think it’s going to happen? The way we’re related, I believe that’s real power. Our spirituality is the power. Culture is the power. Being able to grow traditional foods, speak our languages, that’s power. Our future generations, our teachings, our understanding. It’s not cute, and it’s not cliché. That’s actual power. Enduring and Resilient.

Edgar: Can you talk about spirituality a little? I think it’s one reason that white folks may look at us as magical or mysterious, because we trust that and allow it to guide us and help make decisions.

Tia: I can share that I understand Spirituality as our relationship to our lands and territories, to our Ancestors and cultures. This has not changed. We have been calling her Mother Earth and know her as Mother Earth for a very long time, and that hasn’t changed. It won’t change. One of the distinguishing aspects of Indigenous Peoples is our unique relationships, over millennial to our lands and territories. Our ceremonies and our cultural protocols reflect that we have a responsibility to support and love and nurture her, for everlasting life; To protect water, protect sacred sites. This responsibility belongs in all of our lives and in every sector of society, including philanthropy.


An enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, Edgar Villanueva is the Chair of the Board of Native Americans in Philanthropy and the Vice President of Programs and Advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Having directed the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars for over a decade as a philanthropy professional, Edgar Villanueva diagnoses the dysfunction in the institutions, systems and people that deal with money: it’s 21st century colonialism. Integrating traditional indigenous wisdom with savvy financial experience, Villanueva explains how money can be used to facilitate relationships, to help us thrive, and to bring things back into balance.

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