Making The American Dream A Reality for Native Students

Many people see a college education as the path to achieving the ‘American dream’ – unfortunately, having the motivation and the academic intelligence to attend college is often not enough. The average cost of a college education in the U.S. is upward of $25,000 a year and seems insurmountable for many hopeful students.

Obtaining a college education is even more of a challenge for Native Americans, who hold the lowest bachelor’s degree attainment level of any racial group, 15% according to the U.S. Census Bureau and through no fault of their own.  Even after they are accepted for college admission, many Native students cannot afford the cost of tuition and wind up declining the acceptance letter. And for those who do find the means to pay for the cost of college, they still face the added challenges of culture shock, academic expectations, lack of access to digital resources and ongoing financial strains.

Although daunting, PWNA’s American Indian Education Fund (AIEF) program works to combat these challenges by supporting education at every stage, from fostering educational engagement at a young age to eliminating barriers down the road. AIEF’s work is driven by helping Native students get to college and walk across the stage on graduation day, with a degree in hand and an opportunity for a brighter future.  

AIEF supports college students through scholarship awards as well as mentorship and encouragement, giving students far away from home a trusted source they can rely on to help them navigate college. We’re proud to say that 90-95% of AIEF scholarship recipients complete their first year of college, considerably higher than the national average.  

We received hundreds of scholarship applications in 2021 and hope to award as many students as possible with the funds they need for their American dream. Earning a degree is a significant milestone for many Americans but holds even greater meaning within Native families that have spent generations being all but invisible to the wider public.

Though every AIEF scholar emerges a new leader, changemaker and supporter who can inspire others in their Tribal communities to follow suit and pursue their own dreams, we can only support their vital potential for positive change with the support of our donors and Tribal partners.

We hope you’ll donate to help Native students through PWNA and our AIEF program this year.

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World Fair Trade Day: Remember Native Americans

World Fair Trade Day (WFTD) is recognized on the second Saturday in May, which this year it will be on May 8.  First recognized in 1989, but with roots dating back to the 1940s, WFTD celebrates sustainable production and the rights of workers who fight for it.

You may be asking, what is fair trade? The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) defines it as a “trading partnership based on dialogue, transparency, and respect.” Most importantly, fair trade is based on a people-and planet-first mentality fighting against poverty, climate change, gender inequality and other injustices arising out of unfair trade practices. WFTO member organizations are a global community actively changing the model of trading and raising awareness for trade issues that may be unfamiliar to the average person.

The 2021 fair trade theme is “Build Back Fairer” and rallies around the impact COVID-19 had on our trade system. If anything, the pandemic showed what we can achieve when we work together toward a common goal, such as flattening the curve. We can take the lessons learned from these efforts and apply them to other issues such as social inequity and climate change.

Fair trade is critical to Native American businesses too. In fact, a special challenge impacting fair trade for Native Americans is “cultural appropriation.” One example is the creation and sale of “Native- inspired” jewelry, artwork, clothing and other textiles marketed and sold by non-Native vendors. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 prohibits sellers from misrepresenting or even implying that a product is Native-made or associated with a particular tribe if it is not. For some tribes, such as Navajo, the tribal name may not be used, as in “Navajo-inspired.” A true Indian artisan is an enrolled member of a tribe or certified by the tribe as an Indian artisan.

Fair trade gives many small, disadvantaged designers, producers and vendors a better chance at sustainable livelihoods – and this includes Native-owned businesses. Joining in this year’s theme to build back fair can help raise awareness and combat the social injustices we see in the world today. Use the hashtag #BuildBackFairer to help showcase the local businesses that make your communities better, and if you know a great Native business in your community, be sure to spread the word.

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Native News Pick of the Month: Land Buy-Back, Real Estate Recovery, and the Burning of Blackacre

While reading an article recently in The Guardian about Native communities recovering reservation lands through real estate purchases, it occurred to me that there is a significant gap in understanding the issue at hand, where it originated and how we can prevent it in the future.

The article reported on several different tribal communities from around the country buying back land that was previously taken from them and given to non-Native landowners.  At the time, there was not a remedy for these illegal reallocations, and now after generations of right-sizing and social equity efforts, some tribes are in a financial position to recover their land by purchasing it back.

The rigorous process of acquiring land from private ownership – which then must go into a federal tribal trust – is complicated, time consuming and highlights an example of the political relationship Native Americans face with the federal government. This is, in my opinion, another example of how laws such as the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) are not based on race but rather deeply rooted in a government-to-government sovereignty relationship that was established by treaties. My tribe has been working to recover Shabbona Lake State Park in Illinois for more than 10 years. As part of the Potawatomi tribe’s migration to Kansas in the 1800’s, a treaty was made with then Chief Shabbona to give the land to the Potawatomi. As with every other treaty, it was not honored, and the state took the land. 

Fast forward to today and our tribe has paid more than $20 million in attorney fees, impact statements and other bureaucratic processes to recover the land. As it stands, the application is still pending with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and the tribe owns just one house on the land to establish a presence. The hope is that these applications will get processed more quickly, and favorably, for the tribes under the leadership of Secretary Deb Haaland.

Similarly, the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations through the U.S. Department of Interior aims to return land ownership to a recognizable status and compensate owners for their piece of land that would otherwise be unusable. The program was established in response to the Cobell settlement of 2009 that provided funding to consolidate fractional land interests across Indian Country.

Neither of these avenues are consistent with the #LandBack movement led by Indigenous people who are advocating for the return of lands wrongfully taken from tribes. And while there is merit to their position, having a landowner unilaterally return land ownership without compensation seems altruistic. Not to mention, communities, municipalities and states cannot afford to lose their tax base associated with lands that were wrongfully taken from tribes, and tribes refuse to accept a payment from the government for that wrongful taking. The bottom line is, tribes want the land back and they would be willing to let the government’s money sit in a bank account rather than accept payment and lose the land forever.

Once tribes recover the land, what happens next? Stacy Leeds, a former Supreme Court Justice for the Cherokee Nation and my college law professor and mentor, wrote about this in a 2001 article for the Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy called “The Burning of Blackacre.” In it, she outlined a hypothetical Native-centric model to property law that would curb the fractionated interest. Of course, until that happens, alternate methods to acquiring land will require a multi-pronged approach, including activism, federal participation and, inevitably, real estate acquisitions.

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Preserving and Protecting Mother Earth

Communities around the world have celebrated Earth Day on April 22 for more than 50 years. The Earth symbolizes many things in Native American cultures, much more than a land to use or a place to be. Today, we’re sharing just how significant the Earth is for Indigenous people.

Many Native Americans, such as the Hopi and Sioux Tribes, have long considered themselves children of Mother Earth, inseparable – ‘we are the land and the land is us’ sums it up.

Preserving and Protecting Mother Earth every day

Indigenous people pay tribute to her through stewardship, traditional song, dance and other ceremonies rooted in the belief that the universe is alive and all living things should be respected. Paula Gunn Allen, a Native American poet and novelist, famously wrote the words, “the Earth is the mind of the people as we are the mind of the earth. The land is not really the place where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies. It is not a means of survival, a setting for our affairs. It is rather a part of our being, dynamic, significant, real. It is our self.”

Many Native American cultures also believe in relying on the Earth’s resources to strengthen their communities. Known as Indigenous food systems, Tribal communities incorporate the elements of land, air, water and soil to sustain their people, as they have for thousands of years. And in turn, they thank Mother Earth and bring good stewardship to the land and all its resources, using only as much as they need. Truth be told, Indigenous people have celebrated ‘Earth Day’ every day since time immemorial.

For many years, PWNA has supported programs in the Northern Plains and Southwest that champion the return to Indigenous food systems and Ancestral knowledge. Our Train-The-Trainer capacity building service focuses on food as medicine, healthy cooking and nutrition with traditional foods, and our Project Grow service helps establish and enhance community gardens. In remote communities, these projects often lead to other initiatives such as farmer’s markets and food preservation.

Earth Day is a global environmental movement, essentially to save ourselves, and more than one billion people have taken action to drive positive change for our planet. By supporting PWNA in its programs that help sustain Indigenous food systems, you can help to preserve Mother Earth as the precious resource it is… essential for our existence and for generations to come. 

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Mind Your Heart for National Minority Health Month

April is National Minority Health Month, a time to raise awareness of the important health issues disproportionately affecting BIPOC in the United States. While these issues are crucial year-round, we believe National Minority Health Month is a great opportunity to highlight the health issues that disproportionately affect Native Americans.

Heart disease has long been the leading cause of death for all Americans, yet the cases trend higher across many racial groups. In fact, heart disease rates are 50% higher amongst Native people – and 36% of Native cardiovascular patients die under the age of 65, compared to 31.5% in Blacks and 14.7% in non-Hispanic Whites.  

Heart disease can be triggered by diverse risk factors – many nutrition-related – including:  

  • Diabetes: Type 2 Diabetes is three times more likely to affect Native Americans than Whites.
  • Obesity: As many as 30-40% of Native people have obesity, and 15% struggle to meet physical activity requirements.
  • Tobacco Use: More than 30% of Native people use tobacco in some way, including for ceremonial use, a figure that is twice as high as the general population.

The reasons behind these kinds of health disparities are historically complex, often fused with social and political issues, and have gone unaddressed for too long. If you think about it, racial and ethnic health disparities like heart disease have little to do with the people themselves and more to do with social determinants of health – conditions in the environments where people are born, live and work – and they play a role in their quality of life. Most often, these conditions are largely out of their control.

For many Native people, geographical access to care facilities, language barriers, a lack of cultural representation in the healthcare profession, poverty, a negative history of past Western medical practices and outright discrimination all factor into social determinants of health.

So, when it comes to heart health, how do we overcome these socially pre-determined barriers? Communicating your awareness is key. Talk to your family, friends and loved ones about the risks, as well as what they can and should be doing to develop a heart-healthy routine.

The people at Health Net have provided this helpful infographic filled with some ways you can begin to control your risk of heart disease.

Visit Health Net’s Facebook page for more healthy facts. To learn more aboutNational Minority Health Month, visit the Office of Minority Health. To support our efforts with Tribal partners dedicated to improving the lives of Native Americans, visit our website or click here to donate.

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Emergency Response: A Year-Round Priority

We can’t predict when the next natural disaster, emergency or even health pandemic will arise. However, we know that when disaster does strike, communities who are already disadvantaged are likely to be the most acutely impacted.

For 30 years, Native American Aid (NAA), a PWNA program, has assisted tribal communities on the front lines in response to environmental disasters such as floods, fires, blizzards, drought, tornadoes, and most recently, the global pandemic that continues to devastate Indian Country.

In any disaster, the first 72 hours are the most critical. When lockdowns first began in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, our warehouses were stocked and ready to distribute emergency supplies to the tribal communities we serve. With the help of our donors and partners last year, we were able to distribute more than 342,000 lbs. of emergency supplies aiding nearly 16,000 Native Americans in some of the most remote, impoverished communities in the Northern Plains.

Darwin Long, a PWNA partner from the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, recalls how the pandemic hit home last summer. Their community struggled to access cleaning supplies, hygiene products and other basic items needed to keep spread of the virus at bay. PWNA was able to respond to their needs on a moment’s notice.

While the COVID-19 vaccine is finally helping, the effects of the virus on the reservations are far from over. As Darwin shared, “everyone has been impacted, some families have been decimated and the need is still very real.” Even as we hope the end of the pandemic is in sight, PWNA continues to receive high volumes of requests for toiletries, cleaning supplies, water and non-perishable food and water.

We’re still preparing for the next disaster too – although unpredictable, it is a real threat likely to come from summer heat waves, droughts and brush fires. Our supplies are extremely limited though, so we’re hoping for the support of our generous donors and funders to help us replenish our warehouses and distribute another 350,000 lbs. of supplies to the communities we serve this year.

Do you want to know how can you help? Tell your friends and family about the realities of emergency disasters on reservations and how the COVID-19 pandemic is putting even more stress on these communities. Support Native American families by buying Native-made or Native-sold goods and services. Read more about how nutrition impacts the health of Native American communities at

For more information or to donate to NAA, visit our website.

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Rainmaking Around the World

Rainmaking ceremonies are an important cultural tradition for Indigenous people around the world. This tradition is steeped in bringing life-giving water to the earth, from the canyons of the Americas, to the deserts of Africa and the plains of Australia. Today, we look at several Indigenous groups who practice rainmaking, their beliefs in the ceremonies and why water is considered a sacred element.

For many cultures, a dance to encourage rain is a common practice that stems from age-old  Indigenous history. According to one Sioux Legend,  there was a time when drought had swept the land, impacting people, plants and animals. As Tribes waited for rain, ‘Fear’ crept up. This Fear grew quickly, and children asked their Elders if Fear had forgotten how to play. So, they sang and danced in hopes that Fear would remember. Finally, Fear shed a tear and soon those tears washed over the land to restore rivers, lakes and life.

Even on Native American reservations throughout the U.S., where water can be hard to come by, people gather to honor the Earth with rainmaking ceremonies. Many Tribes continue to practice rainmaking. For example, the Ohlone, Lakota and Cherokee, all practice a rain dance to bring life to the earth. Other times, the dance is done to bring cleansing and renew peoples’ connection to the earth.

Today, these dances continue to serve as a form of prayer – an invitation or a request for life-giving rain to come back to the land, especially in areas where droughts are common. Water is life, and without it the people would not be nourished, the plants would not grow and the animals would not thrive.

For the Ba-Lovedu Tribe of South Africa, it’s customary to elect Rain Queens who are believed to be able to invoke the rain and give birth to daughters to pass down their rain powers. According to the tradition, when the time of one Rain Queen is over, their eldest daughter steps in to continue the tradition. Different ceremonies are held, depending on the severity of a drought, and the community gathers beforehand to discuss which ceremonies are appropriate.

It can be easy to forget how much of a blessing water is until you don’t have it. These Indigenous traditions help us to remember that water is indeed a precious resource. As aboriginal shaman Putuparri has said, “If you take care of [your] country, it will take care of you.”

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Native News Pick of the Month: The Disconnect between Philanthropy and Native American Food Sovereignty

This month, PWNA director of major gifts & partnerships Mark Ford offers his thoughts on our March ‘Native News Pick of the Month’: Funders want to help ensure Native food sovereignty. Many in those communities want philanthropy to do better via The Counter.


When I first began my work in partnership development and fundraising for Partnership with Native Americans (PWNA), I discovered there were few corporate and private foundations that provided funding support for tribes. The Counter recently published an article that touches on the issue of philanthropy in Native American communities. Since reading it, I’ve thought about how there are plenty of grant opportunities for programs that address food insecurity and local food access in urban and rural settings. However, there are few funding options for the same type of work in tribal communities.

I discovered that only 0.23% (less than a quarter of one percent) of all philanthropic funds in the U.S. are awarded to Native-led nonprofits, and on average, 0.4% (four-tenths of one percent) of total annual funding from foundations go to Native American communities and causes.  

Before PWNA can pursue funding from foundations, we need to educate people about the history of Native Americans that isn’t taught in schools. So, we began providing information about tribal governments, Native American food systems (pre- and post-colonization) and the effects of colonization on Native Americans. Even now, many foundations are unaware that U.S. government policies and historical events still perpetuate food insecurity, poor health and poverty in tribal communities. This shows us there are still misconceptions about Native Americans that need to be addressed within all levels of philanthropy.

Recently, we implemented additional ways to teach both current and potential donors about tribes. We’re also developing more materials to educate funders, nonprofit partners and state/federal partners on the history of Native food systems. PWNA has been able to arrange reservation visits for donors where they can meet tribal partners who are involved in gardening, beginner farmer/rancher programs, local farmers markets and other projects that promote Native American traditional food systems. This has inspired major foundations to shift their focus and include tribes as a priority or embrace equity and inclusion in their grant programs. 

PWNA also has been able to foster cohorts of Native food practitioners, producers and nonprofits who are committed to supporting local Native American Food Sovereignty initiatives. These coalitions are committed to addressing food insecurity together by sharing best practices, resources and information. Dr. Janie Simms Hipp, CEO of the Native American Agricultural Fund and founder of the Indigenous Food & Agriculture Initiative, taught me that tribes and Native serving nonprofits, such as PWNA, need to come together. Much like a pack of wolves, we should work together to hunt for resources and share the spoils.

Even if foundations would invest just 1 full percent of their giving to Native causes, it would create lasting changes for tribal communities. However, Native-led nonprofits and tribes must continue to educate foundations about the real history of Native Americans, dispel misconceptions and invite funders to visit tribal communities. That way, funders can see firsthand how citizens are actively addressing food insecurity and restoring traditional food systems to promote better nutrition and health for generations to come.

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World Water Day: Join the Fight for Clean Water

Did you know more than 2.2 billion people around the world live without access to clean water? While most urban homes across America have running water, the same cannot be said for many homes on remote reservations throughout Indian Country. Today is World Water Day – it celebrates the reality that water is life and raises awareness of those still living without local water access.

The Navajo Nation is home to about 175,000 people and its reservation communities span Arizona, New Mexico and Southern Utah. On Navajo lands, 42% of homes lack complete plumbing facilities and these residents travel an average of 48 miles to access clean water. In addition to drinking water, they need the water it takes to wash their hands, clean their dishes, do their laundry and cook their meals.

Through the Navajo Relief Fund (NRF), a PWNA program, we work with Tribal partners to improve quality of life in their communities. Increasing regular access to bottled water is one way of doing this. Even pre-pandemic, water is always one of the top needs requested by our Navajo partners and other Native communities. Water is essential to personal and community health.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Tribal leaders implemented community-wide curfews to reduce the spread of the virus. While this mandate helped protect communities, it also posed a new challenge for those without running water – the complexity of following CDC guidelines for frequent handwashing.  As a result, emergency requests for water were constant over the past year and PWNA included water in nearly every delivery to 25 reservations, including Navajo.

Our water deliveries address a critical need, but they also offer hope and relief to families that are doing all they can to remain safe. PWNA and its programs are working to improve water equity for access to clean water and resiliency in the face of emergencies. With the continued support of our donors – and continued partnerships with Native community leaders – we’re confident we can continue to bring positive change for future generations.

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National Nutrition Month: Fostering Healthier Eating Habits through Community Gardens

One in four Native American families faces food insecurity, compared to one in eight Americans overall. This issue often stems from poverty and lack of access to grocery stores on reservations. And while the U.S. government provides aid to low-income families, the food items they deliver often lack nutritional value. In honor of National Nutrition Month in March, we wanted to share more on how PWNA works with reservation-based partners to bring more nutritional foods to Indian Country.

Project Grow, a service of PWNA’s Northern Plains Reservation Aid (NPRA) program, provides seeds, tools and tilling to support individual and community gardens in reservation communities. These garden projects create an opportunity for individuals to learn valuable skills and grow fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs that help promote healthier diets.

With the help of tribal partners and generous donors, Project Grow has been able to provide nearly 236,000 packs of seeds to reservation communities in 2020 alone. These seeds not only produce crops but foster hope for impoverished communities that mostly rely on commodities to feed their families. One 800-square foot garden can feed a family of four.

To help address food insecurity, Project Grow has also provided education on gardening, nutrition and healthy cooking to more than 1,500 people in the Northern Plains over the past three years. This training reaches both Elders and youth who are spearheading the next generation of creators and changemakers. By introducing healthy habits at an early age, communities have the power to break the cycle of food insecurity and reduce nutrition-related diseases for future generations.

There are many ways you can get involved in supporting Native communities during National Nutrition Month. Talk to your friends and families about the realities of food insecurity on the reservations, share this blog on social media or donate today to our NPRA program to make an immediate and lasting impact on Native communities.

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