Irrational Numbers: Charting a New Path in Indian Country

Irrational Numbers: Charting a New Path in Indian Country

by Michael Roberts

This article is the sixth in a series that Nonprofit Quarterly, in partnership with the First Nations Development Institute, is publishing this fall. It features Native American nonprofit leaders who highlight the practices of community building in Indian Country and identify ways that philanthropy might more effectively support this work.

We know that American Indians are a small part of today’s US population. This is often used as a rationale for philanthropy to bypass making grants in Indian Country. What is often evaded is why this count is so low—namely, conquest and genocide. Moreover, it is rarely acknowledged that much of the wealth now stored in private philanthropy endowments depended on white appropriation of American Indian land and mineral assets. A new path is needed, one that seeks to actively include Native voices in data gathering, conferences, and overall agenda-setting.

People who know me have heard me say that if “Black Lives Matter,” then “American Indian Lives Should Count.” Others know there is a quote by Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer taped to my computer that says, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” But when it comes to the lives of American Indian peoples, the beliefs shared by these two sentiments are sometimes lost on those in philanthropic institutions.

In We Need to Change How We Think: Perspectives on Philanthropy’s Underfunding of Native Communities and Causes, a recently published report co-authored by Frontline Solutions and First Nations Development Institute, it was suggested that some barriers to investment in American Indian communities are explained by the data disaggregation process, especially for funders who use data as their mandate to invest. Because Native populations are smaller than those of other disadvantaged groups, Native issues aren’t represented well in the data. Respondents in the report claim this can often result in the bureaucratic invisibility of the Native population, given the absolute scale and numbers in relation to the overall population. This, one suspects, leads to assumptions about the overall scale and impact that investing in Native populations can have in comparison to larger groups such as Black or Latinx populations.