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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Recognizing Heather Dawn Thompson on International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’. I am fortunate enough to know, as well as to have raised and to work alongside, women who celebrate this anthem in all that they do. Whether it’s being a good relative to others, a fierce mother and advocate of education equity, or a quiet leader in their community, there are so many courageous tribal voices choosing paths that can positively impact others.

When I think about women who intentionally choose to challenge, Heather Dawn Thompson instantly comes to mind. Also known as Thašúŋke Híŋ Zi Wiŋ (Yellow Buckskin Horse Woman), Heather is a Mnicoujou (Plants by the Water) Lakota woman from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. She calls Rapid City and Pine Ridge home but travels extensively.

Her education journey produced a Bachelor’s in International Studies, a Master’s in Public Policy and a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School. During her law career, Heather has held many titles, such as Tribal Prosecutor, Law Clerk, Policy Advisor/Counsel, Partner, Assistant US Attorney, Professor and Bush Fellow. Her most recent title is Director of the Office of Tribal Relations, USDA.

In her new role with the USDA, Heather reports directly to the Secretary of Agriculture. She is looking forward to using the department’s reach to better help rural and tribal communities. In a recent interview with Indian Country Today, Heather shared, “This administration has been very clear about its top four priorities, which are economic recovery, addressing COVID, racial equity and climate change… And frankly, you’re not going to find anywhere else in the nation where those four converge any more than they do in Indian Country.”

In 2014, PWNA partnered with Heather who served as a mentor and coach during our inaugural 4 Directions (4D) leadership development cohort held in Rapid City, South Dakota. Through her expertise and experience, she offered guidance and support to participants so they could work toward their personal and professional goals and become a better version of themselves.

Jodi Henry, a PWNA program partner, was assigned to Heather and found the value of her support immeasurable. While all the 4D participants still carry Heather’s lessons, the experience was life changing for Jodi. “It all started with my 4D coach. Heather made us set goals and taught us that if we do not take care of ourselves first we cannot fully take care of others,” Jodi recalls. “The 4D experience taught me that I was a leader. I learned how to be a good listener – it boosted my self-esteem – and I learned to take care of myself, which sometimes we forget to do. Since then, I’ve lost over 120 pounds!”

While supporting 4D, Heather was also teaming up with researchers and community members to locate the graves of children from the Rapid City Indian Boarding School. Those efforts not only reunited families with their lost loved ones but also shed light on how Native land was being misused. The research and subsequent land negotiations with the city garnered national attention and received an honorable mention by the 2020 Outstanding Public History Project.

Heather is an example of women who identify issues, seek answers and help carry ideas and projects forward – all while networking and partnering with others to create collaborative solutions. Currently, she is teaming up with other Indigenous parents, educators and concerned community members to bring equitable education to Native youth in Rapid City. Heather’s stage may be a large one now, but I know she will continue to create positive impact and always inspire others to #choosetochallenge.

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Celebrating Billy Mills, Native Athlete and Advocate

His Lakota name is “Tamakoce Te’Hila” (“Loves His Country”). To many, though, he is better known as Billy Mills, an Olympic athlete and icon for many aspiring athletes. And on March 6, South Dakota celebrates Billy Mills Day to recognize Billy’s achievements and the many ways he’s fought for our communities.

A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Mills is celebrated as an athlete, an advocate for Indigenous people and a loving father and grandfather. Like many others from the reservations, Billy’s life came with struggles. He became an orphan at a young age but was able to overcome his pain and build a life of his own, becoming the first Native American to win the Olympic Gold Medal for the 10,000-meter run in 1964.

His lifetime achievements, including serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, contributed to his fame and gave Billy a platform to help others. In 1986, he co-founded Running Strong, a nonprofit with a mission to create sustainable change in Indigenous communities across America. The organization focuses on cultural preservation and has raised millions of dollars over the years to address the needs of Native youth.

When I met Billy Mills, he was speaking in support of changing the name of the Washington Redskins pro sports team, now known as the Washington Football Team. He fights to rectify transgressions against Native Americans (both past and ongoing) and to ensure a better life for those living in tribal communities. He brings his Lakota values to his everyday life and reminds us to be community minded in today’s world, practicing discipline in a world stricken by the pandemic.

Last year, Billy spoke of his eagerness to attend the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan. He understood the need for postponement and said the Games would help “revitalize the world” in 2021.

To this day, his advocacy rings within me. Billy will forever hold a place in my mind as someone who not only defied the odds to succeed as a world-class athlete, but also as a warrior and advocate who continues to be a beacon of hope for our people. On this Billy Mills Day, I encourage you to spread the positivity and compassion with the world around you, much like Billy does.

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Lessons We Can Learn For COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution in Native Communities

PWNA was recently invited to participate in a listening session with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security CommuniVax Coalition to discuss COVID-19 vaccine distribution. The Coalition has since published and shared the ‘Equity in Vaccination’ report on their findings and recommendations after numerous critical stakeholder conversations. I appreciated the opportunity to provide an Indigenous perspective and am pleased with the report that was issued, but there is a burning question that remains: will anything change?

The report proposes a plan for leaders to layout an equitable “Five I’s” vaccination campaign that includes iteration, involvement, information, investment and integration.  The report also includes a comprehensive checklist for leaders to follow at each section that allows for adjustments, flexibility and unpredictable nuance(s) that may exist. And as we’ve seen over the past 11 months of the pandemic, information changes rapidly.

As the report indicates, communities are not a monolith and there’s not a cookie-cutter solution that will solve every dilemma, but therein lies an opportunity to solve immediate issues through long-term solutions. This approach is consistent with how PWNA approaches our work with reservation partners.

Five weeks ago, when the early distribution of the vaccine was being rolled out to communities across the nation, the same concerns I had then were reflected in the listening session, including widespread mistrust throughout the community because of historical trauma, misrepresentation of data that accurately counts Native American communities, lack of access to vaccine information, and inaccessibility of healthcare services in Native communities. 

Tribes have since superseded these barriers and surpassed expectations in all aspects of the rollout. We’re seeing Native leaders step up to support vaccine distribution, agility to administer the shot and less bureaucratic red tape to stall these efforts. Stories of Native communities getting their members – and even non-members – vaccinated are trickling in, and they’re consistent with a discussion I previously had with a Tribal councilman. The councilman shared they’d been getting grief about giving the vaccine to non-members, to which I responded, “get it into everyone’s arms that will take it.”

Getting people vaccinated that are in our communities, interacting with our community members, or working for our enterprises should not be excluded. This is paramount in caring for the health and well-being of our community and putting the whole ahead of the individual has been a custom of Indigenous people from the beginning.

The JHU report goes on to say that the recovery group should also strategize how to reverse the underlying social and economic inequalities that made some groups more vulnerable to adverse pandemic effects in the first place. This could not be more true. Isn’t it time to change the approach and use a framework that will leverage the community as the solution and not the problem?  John’s Hopkins University thinks so, and so does PWNA.

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Native News Pick of the Month: COVID-19’s Toll on Elders and The Perspective of One Indigenous Man

This month, PWNA vice president of programs Rafael Tapia Jr. offers his thoughts on our February ‘Native News Pick of the Month’: Indigenous Americans dying from COVID-19 at twice the rate of white Americans via The Guardian


Imagine more than 66 million Americans dying in the past 10 months. Imagine the heartache, fear, trauma and devastation this has produced. Imagine all the relatives, friends and citizens no longer with us or there to care for their loved ones, provide for their families or serve their communities. Imagine the deep void this left us with and a level of grieving unknown in our lifetime.

We’ve shared before about the impact of losing Native American Elders. Ancestral knowledge is still passed on through our Elders in the form of oral traditions, mentoring and sharing of life experience. Elders transfer our cultural knowledge to the younger generations. Yet every day, COVID-19 is taking our Elders at higher rates than ever – and with them ancestral knowledge we may never regain.

My tribe, the Pascua Yaqui, has ceremonial celebrations for life and death. Death ceremonies celebrate the passage to the next journey, a return to the life source from which we all come, a destiny we are all born with and should embrace as part of life. Still, it is heartbreaking that so many Elders are dying prematurely from COVID-19 and taking with them their precious ancestral knowledge.

The pandemic death toll for Native Americans is staggering. Nationwide, one in every 475 Native Americans has died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, compared with one in every 825 white Americans and one in every 645 Black Americans, according to analysis by APM Research Lab (as mentioned in The Guardian’s exclusive story). Native Americans have suffered 211 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 121 white Americans per 100,000. Communities in Mississippi, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas have been hit the hardest. (My own tribe has lost approximately 2 percent of our citizens to COVID-19.) And the true Native death toll is undoubtedly higher as Native data is often patchy or non-existent in federal, state and local reports.

The odds were stacked against Native Americans before COVID-19 brought its devastation to our communities. A staggering 23 percent of Natives were already food insecure and 40 percent of reservation housing was substandard or overcrowded with several generations in a small home. Additionally, Native Americans already faced a disproportionate rate of chronic health issues, including the highest rate of diabetes in the world.

Is this our lot as Native peoples? To be burdened with disease and the ills of the world? Why is it not our lot to reap the windfalls brought by wealth and power that so many other groups enjoy? The answer lies in how the events of our country’s history have impacted Indigenous people, from first contact until today.

The conditions that make Indigenous people more vulnerable were established long before the pandemic reached our shores. Native Americans are the poorest, the sickest and the lowest in educational attainment in America. We may well soon be completely extinct, just like other tribes that once prospered on this continent. And yet, for the Indigenous tribes still struggling to hold onto life, have we not qualified to be on the endangered species list?

COVID-19 is a wake-up call for Native peoples. Let us not be lulled into complacency by poverty, sickness and the myriad distractions of the outside world. Let us rise together and fight COVID-19 by holding on to what we have, what we believe in and what we must do to preserve our ways. We as Native peoples have been here before and we will continue to find reason to celebrate life – and death.

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From Foster to Forever: Helping Cats & Dogs in Underserved Communities

The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are about 23 million cats and dogs living in underserved communities across the United States. Stray and homeless animals are especially common in reservation communities because animal-related resources are scarce and veterinary services are limited.

Reservation Animal Rescue (RAR), a program of PWNA, helps program partners rescue hungry or injured stray animals and stop the spread of disease these animals can carry. One of these partners helped find a home for a special kitten whose rescue journey started in the trash – Katya.

Andrea, founder of the Oglala Pet Project (OPP) in Kyle, South Dakota, first spotted the small, Russian Blue behind a community dumpster. Her first instinct was to wrap the tiny feline in a blanket she had in her car that RAR had donated to OPP and drive her to a veterinarian to be treated for pinworms.

Today, Katya lives in her forever home with Jana, a volunteer foster parent for OPP. Jana originally offered to care for the cat temporarily but soon realized she was destined to become a permanent family member. As Jana puts it, Katya has the personality of “a cat, a dog and a toddler rolled into one.” She’s playful, sociable with visitors and loves to play hide-and-seek with the family dogs.

Over the years, Jana and her husband have fostered 34 cats and kittens; Katya was only their second ‘foster failure’ – the affectionate term that’s used to describe the process of fostering an animal that winds up being adopted into the foster family. Foster volunteers like Jana receive food and treats donated through RAR’s partners to help reduce the cost of fostering animals, which in turn helps them find forever homes for more animals.

Since adopting Katya, Jana has fostered many more kittens, now adopted into loving homes of their own. She credits OPP for helping to find so many animals homes and shared that while OPP’s adoption process includes a lengthy vetting process, they work hard to minimize the possibility of adopters later giving up the animals. Jana also said pets offer entertainment, comfort and joy when you need it most. She’s a longtime advocate for animal welfare, as is OPP and the rest of PWNA’s animal-serving partners.

This past year proved especially challenging for our RAR partners who, despite the shortage of both funding and resources brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, continued to serve their communities. Animals will always need our help, and your donation can help take one more animal from the streets to a fur-ever home.

Are you considering adding a furry friend to your family this year? If so, Jana has one important piece of advice: “Adopt, don’t shop!”

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Fueling Winter Warmth for Native Elders

Among the many challenges facing those who live in remote locations is sustained access to winter fuel – a limited-yet-critical resource – and a pervasive need. Across the Northern Plains, a lot of families endure harsh winters in less than ideal housing with few ways – or even no way – to access supplies they need to warm their homes. This is especially true for Elders, who often are without the financial or physical capacity to prepare themselves or their homes for winter weather.

While they do their best to stack their woodpiles and gather other supplies ahead of time, these resources diminish quickly. PWNA provides them with as much support as we can, and we are able to do so only through the generous support of donors, some of whom choose to sponsor an Elder for the winter season. This additional support means the sponsored Elder will not be forced to make the impossible choice between buying food or buying fuel.

Heating costs are also almost always higher on reservations, as many homes aren’t built adequately to warm the home or keep in the heat. Communities go as far as wrapping plastic, blankets or cardboard around their windows to hopefully trap warm air inside. The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for example, faces extreme poverty, harsh weather and high suicide rates. Many families are in ‘survival mode’ all winter and simply cannot afford the amount of wood or propane needed to keep their home warm, relying heavily on tribal and nonprofit aid.  

This year is especially challenging, as many reservations are under strict guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19, limiting residents’ abilities to leave their homes in search of fuel. Native Elders are also considered higher risk for the virus and are encouraged to stay home to stay safe – but cold temperatures can be just as detrimental to their health.

While no one has been able to escape the ongoing effects of the pandemic, we can still make a difference to these Elders and families now, even as we continue to support meaningful, long-term solutions. If you would like to learn more about our seasonal weatherization efforts, visit our Emergency Services page.

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