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Native American Philanthropy- Wealth, Poverty, and the Tradition of Giving

The story of Native American entry into formal philanthropy is a story of wealth, poverty, and a long history of giving and sharing. In the beginning, Native Americans inhabited lands that would generate untold wealth for the Astors, and Carnegies, Fords and Rockefellers. Native Americans, then and now measured wealth not in terms of money; they prefer to measure wealth in terms of community standing of an individual, which derives from living an honorable and community centered life.

Some Native American ventures, such as First Nations Development Institute's Eagle Staff Fund, the Seventh Generation Fund or the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Corporation combine entrepreneurship with philanthropy. Based on ancient traditions of sharing and caring, and drawing on state-of-the-art technology and management practices, these organizations and other capital sources, such as American Indian Banks, are stimulating Native business activity. As businesses and Tribal enterprises produce jobs and profits, owners and employees are beginning to make use of savings and retirement plans to finally help Native Americans become stewards of their own wealth.

Gaming has long been an important enterprise in the Native American experience. More than 200 Tribes have operated gaming facilities, which generated more than $6 billion in gross income in 1997, yet only a small percentage of these Tribes have realized significant profits. These profitable Tribes tend to be small Tribes located near large urban and commercial centers, however only one Tribe in 10 produces significant revenue from gaming. The greatest benefit of Tribal gaming has been in job creation in rural high unemployment areas: more than 120,000 direct jobs and 160,000 indirect jobs have been created nationwide.

Relatively few Tribes enjoy all the ingredients needed for financial success, in gaming or other commercial enterprises. In Indian Country as a whole, although conditions are slowly improving, poverty remains deep and pervasive. About 45% of American Indians live in households with incomes below the poverty line. Among Native Americans as a whole, the average unemployment rate is 45% and some on reservations it reaches 90%. Of those in the workforce, three-quarters earn less than $7,000 a year. A central hope of expanding formal giving by Native Americans is to spark economic activity in many of these communities.

The constant reminders of poor economic conditions in Indian Country drive Native American Tribal and business leaders to apply newly acquired wealth for community self-help and self-determination. But federal law complicates their access to formal mechanism of philanthropy. Because of their unique status under the U.S. constitution as sovereign entities, Native American Tribes constantly deal with two legal and political systems, their own and that of the non-Native world.

Native American individuals and businesses are treated the same as non-natives for purposes of forming charitable entities such as private or corporate foundations, and are subject to the Internal Revenue Code. Tribal governments, if recognized by the Treasury Department, usually have the choice of proceeding under the Indian Tribal Government Tax Status Act, called Section 7871 of the Internal Revenue Code, which reflects the sovereign status of Tribes, or under federal law pertaining to public charities, Section 501(c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Because of the special constitutional status of many Tribes and the relative newness of their use of formal giving mechanisms, many areas of federal law are untested. First Nations Development Institute won an important letter ruling from the IRS, that found certain corporations organized under tribal law to qualify for federal tax-exempt status as 501 (c) (3) public charities; contributions are therefore tax deductible. First Nations won a second IRS ruling that a private foundations grant to an Indian Tribal government was “qualifying distribution” and thus a legal charitable grant from the foundation.

With the new wealth and development in Native Communities, new and unique forms of organizations are being formed to meet the civic, health, economic and environmental needs of the complex Native American communities.

* Source “A River so Wide: Native American Philanthropy Enters a New Era”, By Rebecca Adamson, President of First Nations Development Institute  Submitted by Andrea Alexander, Makah Tribal member


Copyright © 2002-2006 Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Corporation.

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