Chairman’s Letter

From the 2015 Annual Report

Celebrating 35 Years of Resilience and Success, But There's Still Work to Do

After many years of service to First Nations Development Institute, it is with a great deal of purposeful thought that I have decided to step down as Chairman of the Board and as a Board member, effective in June 2016. And although this annual report covers the year 2015, I made the decision while we were in the process of pulling this report together.

To clarify, I’m stepping down with a great deal of thought, not with great reluctance, which is a phrase that many chairpersons might use in these situations. Actually, there is no reluctance whatsoever on my part. I’ve had the wonderful fortune of being part of the First Nations journey – as an advisor, Board member and Chairman – for nearly all of First Nations’ 35 years (which is half of my very own existence), and there was no doubt in my mind that the time was right for me to get out of the way.

There is no reluctance because I’m as extremely confident in the future of First Nations as I am proud of the tremendous progress the organization has made since its beginning in 1980. I have implicit confidence in the Board, the management and the staff of First Nations. The leadership core is solid and stable. We have been blessed with an amazing and visionary Board and a dedicated, innovative staff (both Native and non-Native) since the very start, and that certainly doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

There is no reluctance because generous and thoughtful foundations, tribes and individual donors have stepped up to help secure the financial underpinning of the organization. Starting with the very first insightful investment by the Ford Foundation, First Nations has been fortunate to attract and cultivate additional and continuing support across a wide spectrum – support that grows because First Nations is a good steward, knows how to deliver, and because First Nations recognizes and strongly believes in the ingenuity and hard work of the Native communities it serves. We sincerely thank and appreciate these foundations, tribes and individuals who have joined us at the table.  And, of course, that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon, either.

First Nations celebrated its 35th anniversary during 2015. Over those decades, like First Nations, Indian people have made great progress. Years ago they might not have had a clear understanding of tribal sovereignty, self-governance and self-determination, but now they do. And, I believe, some (or even much) of the credit for that belongs to First Nations. This vision carries forward today as First Nations advocates for, educates and capitalizes Native communities. Again, no reluctance. The future is secure as we continue to build a Native America for the 21st Century.

Special thanks and honor is reserved for Rebecca Adamson, who along with me and A. David Lester envisioned the original concept of First Nations, which Rebecca formalized into the First Nations Financial Project in 1980 (renamed First Nations Development Institute in 1991).  Rebecca's work in the early years set the foundation for much of our success.  Rebecca, of course, went on to further efforts on the international scene, performing work born out of the First Nations experience.

Early on, First Nations also gave birth to the notion of a specialized arm to address the lack of capital and financial infrastructure holding back economic development in Native communities. This began with research in 1982 and became the Oweesta Program in 1986. In 1999 it became First Nations Oweesta Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary that supports economic growth in Native American communities through the creation, development and capitalization of Native Community Development Financial Institutions, or CDFIs.

As an aside, one of our best “Board Indians” was not Indian at all. Siobhan Oppenheimer-Nicolau, or “Oppie” as she came to be known, was a superlative advisor, sounding board, board member and just a beautiful human being. She was a dear friend. We were extremely fortunate to have both her heart and mind on our Board for so long. She passed in 2013, and is now Board Member Emeritus - In Memoriam. Also, the very same sentiment pertains to another dear, departed friend, A. David Lester (Muscogee Creek), who was there with me at inception and later as a Board member until his passing in 2012. David is also a Board Member Emeritus - In Memoriam. It is my hope that the spirit and wisdom of both Oppie and David will continue to guide First Nations into the future, and I trust that future to the Board. 

Likewise, the Ford Foundation, which gave First Nations much-needed seed money, was revolutionary at the time by recognizing the importance of what we were trying to do in Indian Country and providing the seminal resources with which to do it. We wanted to fund niche projects, and support Indians’ own ideas and ideals in order to move forward.  The Ford Foundation got it. 

Early on in its history, First Nations’ board policy was based on three key principles, which I believe set us on the right path then, now and for the future. Had we not subscribed to these tenets for all those years, First Nations might have been a very different organization today, if it existed at all.  I’m biased, of course, but I think it turned out perfectly:

  • Operate with no federal funding. We knew from our experience as Indians that government funding usually always comes with an agenda, sometimes deeply hidden, which was largely why Native communities were in the bad situation they were at the time.  Although we now work with some federal agencies, we are ever vigilant to not let any other agendas steer us off course.
  • Take no political positions. We are not a lobbying, activist or politicized organization. Yes, we are definitely an advocate and a voice for Indian people, and we advocate for systemic change to improve Native communities and economies, but we are not partisan. We believe our mission is above politics. Even in the early days, First Nations was a sought-after nonpartisan sounding board and played a major role in advising on national policy relating to the First Americans. That continues to this day. 
  • Let our work speak for us. Let our accomplishments be our message. We did not want First Nations to be a shallow publicity machine or a one-dimensional activist organization that engaged in media hype. We wanted to generate real, concrete and positive results based on the innovation we saw possible in Native communities. We wanted to be a bridge between available resources and Indian ingenuity. We wanted the results to speak for themselves.  And they do.


More than ever, the evolution of First Nations and the success of its grantees makes me believe even more firmly in the concept of resilience and, especially, in the sheer resilience of us as Indian people. But our jobs are not done yet. Indian people still need a voice and an advocate. We still need to move the needle in a positive direction on the dial. 

First Nations has been such an integral part of my own life for more than 35 years that I can hardly imagine not being actively involved in its work on an almost daily basis. But the organization is in good hands, its work will go on, and it will continue to strengthen American Indian economies to support healthy Native communities. With heart and empathy, it will continue to be a voice and an advocate for Indian people.

It’s been quite a ride! Thank you for allowing me to be a part of it. 

B. Thomas Vigil (Jicarilla Apache/Jemez Pueblo)
Chairman, Board of Directors (Chairman Emeritus as of June 2016)
First Nations Development Institute


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