Connecting the Birth World to the Earth World

Roberta Eaglehorse-Ortiz finds support for growth through First Nations’ Native Fundraisers Community of Practice

Roberta Eaglehorse-Ortiz (Oglala Lakota/Yomba Shoshone) believes in community – building it, serving it, and finding solutions through it. She is an entrepreneur, a convener, and a doer who has cultivated community in everything she’s set out to do. Based on this, it is only ideal that she is now part of First Nations’ 2021 Native Fundraisers Community of Practice (NFCoP). Here, she has found a gathering of Native professionals committed to sharing ideas, knowledge, and resources for uncovering funding opportunities, grant-writing, and storytelling. Through regular trainings and cohort sessions – now virtual through the pandemic – Eaglehorse-Ortiz is again finding the power of community to build capacity in her own organization and those of all the NFCoP members.

A Community for Community
As part of First Nations’ focus on strengthening tribal and community institutions, the NFCoP is designed to grow the nonprofit sector in Native communities and to advocate for and direct more philanthropic resources to Native-led nonprofits and tribal programs. The need for opportunities  like the NFCoP is particularly pressing given the negligible philanthropic dollars currently being targeted to Native-led organizations and tribal programs. In fact, First Nations’ research has shown that, on average, only 15/100ths of one percent of community foundation funding goes to Native American organizations and causes annually. At the same time, there is a high need reported by First Nations’ partners, nonprofits, and tribal government programs for culturally relevant fundraising resources, training, and financial sustainability plans for their organizations.

Roberta Eaglehorse-Ortiz is a founding farmer, LE, THW/CHW, & traditional birthworker at Wombyn’s Wellness Garden and a participant in First Nations’ 2021 Native Fundraisers Community of Practice.

With this in mind, the NFCoP is grounded in the belief that: 1) Native communities have crafted strategies and solutions for community and economic development; and 2) Effecting growth and change at the community level hinges on the capacity of Native nonprofits and tribal programs to generate financial resources. First Nations’ Program Director Catherine Bryan shares, “The Native Fundraisers Community of Practice prioritizes building skills and capacity for revenue generation, including strong grant-writing skills and fundraising strategies.”

Bryan adds, “But this community of practice is not like a run-of-the-mill, brown-bag grant-writing training. It is notably focused on facilitating the creation of a peer network of emerging fundraisers with opportunities for peer sharing as well as approaching grant- writing and fundraising with strong, authentic, asset-based storytelling tools that can equip these emerging leaders to be part of changing the misconceptions about Native Americans held by so many Americans. Changing this narrative and shifting how philanthropy views Native communities, Native-led nonprofits, and tribal programs is absolutely essential to building the revenue pipeline needed for thriving, sustainable communities.”

The Tools to Grow
Ensuring that her community thrives is exactly what Eaglehorse-Ortiz is focused on, and with the skills she’s learning through the NFCoP, she’s positioned to continue growing and nurturing her organization in the ways inherent in the NFCoP – through a community.

As a founding farmer of the Wombyn’s Wellness Garden, LLC, Eaglehorse-Ortiz says she has learned that she doesn’t have to know everything at once to start creating something special. By bringing people together and sharing experience and know-how, everyone can continue to learn, and things can grow from a simple plot of land, to an educational hub, to an agritourism destination. “We learn as we go, and if we try and fail, then we’ve still tried. And that’s still growth,” she says.

Eaglehorse-Ortiz explains the medicinal and therapeutic benefits of connecting with the earth.

From Birth to Earth
In Eaglehorse-Ortiz’s vocation and calling, growth is in an inherent part of the process. Since before founding Wombyn’s Wellness Garden, she has been a certified Full Circle Doula & Lactation Educator, Breastfeeding Peer Counselor, and community health worker. She has also been on the Traditional Health Care Worker registry for the State of Oregon, and she was the executive director of the Oregon Inter-Tribal Breastfeeding Coalition. In this role, her work focused on serving local Native families to provide a smooth transition to home and to support breastfeeding/infant feeding. Eaglehorse-Ortiz engaged in robust mentorship with HealthConnectOne in policy work, speaking with Oregon’s legislation and in Washington, DC, on “first food” equity, and taking on the large task to develop a community-based doula project with her coalition. She says the project did not take root, but “all good things in good time.”

Eaglehorse-Ortiz was also a Birth Equity Leadership Academy graduate and one of many designated HealthConnectOne’s 2020 Community Health Workers of the Year. She says supporting Native families means so much to her as a community member.

“We’re all here in the urban Portland area, raising babies together. We have a significant population that we can support in many ways of childbearing. We can heal some of that intergenerational trauma of colonization, while providing immunity boost, protection of their microbiome, and power of choice. Education is key,” she says.

In working as a doula and in interacting with families, Eaglehorse-Ortiz began to think of new ways she could support women in the birthing process, and also connect more meaningfully with the world around her. Desperately in need of self-healing and information about her own health issues with severe Rheumatoid arthritis, her path led her to the land. It was time to pivot and root down. After all, she was, herself, still tandem nursing her two youngest children, she says.

When space opened up through the Oregon Food Bank in 2015 for a 200- by 80-foot community garden plot, she says they assumed she was a gardener. “I’d never grown anything besides a butterfly bush and house plants,” she laughs. “But I believe in Native people and land, and the importance of safe places, community, and healing. I also believe that through gardening, I could create opportunities to serve women in new ways. I had to take the chance.”

She ultimately opened with a 100- by 80-foot plot and started growing medicinal plants and basic mainstream produce for improved nutrition in pregnancy and during breastfeeding, blending her birth work with land stewardship. Then, she opened the garden to the community as an educational hub for families, children and the wider community. She now provides site-based, hands-on supportive space and focuses on natural grow practices and permaculture gardening. She dabbles in dry farming as well.

Eaglehorse-Ortiz explains that there are so many different ways to engage with a community that the possibilities of the plot of land quickly appeared. Wombyn’s Wellness Garden soon became not only a wellness sanctuary, but also a classroom, meeting space, and even travel destination. “We desire to be a visitation space for families dealing with foster care as well. Native families have the highest removal rate from birth,” she says. “We can be a safe space to reconnect with one another, and get resources, support and advocacy through the Department of Human Services to get babies breastmilk even in the separation. People can heal as a family in community and learn a few things about how food grows, have access to fresh produce, and take pause from the fast city pace.”

Intentional outreach and engagement with the community has sprouted many relationships that have kept the garden growing. Portland State University’s Senior Capstone class, Sustainability, Food Justice and Food Sovereignty, is now in its fourth year of a partnership with the garden and focuses on how to create sustainable and just change in the food system and beyond. Students explore the concepts of sustainability, sustainability leadership, food justice, and food sovereignty through community-based learning. Class members have assisted in website design, COVID-19 SNAP postcards, bed prep, weeding, harvesting, and documenting the transition of the space over the years.

This had led to relationships with Oregon State University as well, and a collaboration on monthly cooking classes for Native nutrition education. This class has moved into food preservation, and gardening work has expanded programming. Families are learning how to make baby food and healthy snacks for children. “We purchased tabletop dehydrators, immersion blenders, kitchen knives, and steaming bowls,” she says, “Our beloved facilitator, Danita Macy, is a kind and knowledgeable Master preserver, on top of her role as SNAP-Ed Education Program Assistant for Oregon State University’s Extension Family and Community Health.”

Eaglehorse-Ortiz provides doula resources and breastfeeding support during the classes as well. Families are welcome to stay, walk the garden, let the kids play and learn while students talk. The garden has a designated meeting space for classes and a play area for babies on a patch of yarrow, pansies and clover, she says.

Support to Grow, Support to Thrive
Still, as more and more people experience the peace and sanctuary of Wombyn’s Wellness Garden, and more relationships form with community partners that broaden the organization’s reach and potential, the need to plan for operational and development strategies has increased. As a sole founder of a growing business, Eaglehorse-Ortiz has known the importance of funding and sustainability. So, after she presented at First Nations and Oneida Nation of Wisconsin’s Food Sovereignty Summit back in 2019 and was asked if she’d like to participate in the NFCoP, she said yes.

“I knew I could elevate my business plan really fast, but I need support, and that’s what I’m getting from the cohort — figuring out the money game by being in that group, expanding those skills and knowing how to get funds in order to grow,” she says. “This year, 2021, we have secured a commercial kitchen partnership in a nice quiet neighborhood where we will be developing our family food hub. We will be managing a small market and taking part in the farmers direct nutrition program, which gives fresh produce vouchers to elders and participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. They can come buy our produce, as fresh as you can get. I really need to hire someone soon. I just need to get the funds in order.”

Indeed, through the NFCoP, participants have taken multiple virtual training sessions, including an eight-week online grant writing course, fundraising training sessions, and virtual master classes. They’ve also received a subscription and hands-on training on how to use an online Foundation Directory fundraising platform, and have developed their fundraising research abilities. In addition, they have been coached in the development of their personal and professional asset-based storytelling that supports their grant-writing, program development, and leadership.

Wombyn’s Wellness Garden is built by community, for community, serving as a sanctuary, classroom, gathering place, and agritourist destination.

For Eaglehorse-Ortiz, who says she’s always had an imperialistic view of money, the NFCoP has demystified the fundraising process, introducing her to tools that streamline the search for funding and helping her articulate her programming through storytelling. “When you put the community values in a Native framework in the grant-writing process, it’s so digestible,” she says. “I learn differently from my non-Native counterparts. I have a historic distortion of money and creative ways of leveraging power and resources. That is probably why I have been working for much less, and now I am seeing my survival skill of changing one dollar into three, by nature. I need to work smarter with money.”

Strengths-Based, Forward-Focused
With the strength of her community-based organization – and the support of the NFCoP – behind her, Eaglehorse-Ortiz says she’s well positioned to continue her focus on growth, unique to her person. The birth work and earth work has created a connection and helped her share with others that solutions do not have to be “either or” – they can be “and.”

Through the Wombyn’s Wellness Garden, she’s found a way to further work with the community, overcome disparities, and focus on strengths, which is more important now than ever, in light of COVID-19. Still she asserts she is ready to apply her love of community and her learnings from the NFCoP to continue to honor and remember the magic of the land.

“Even though life gets hard and issues get heavy, this is one good thing that we can do. We can gather — Birth workers, clients, community members, and supporters,” she says. “It just feels good to me. It brings a lot of light and sunshine to people, and I like that.”

Learn more about the Wombyn’s Wellness Garden at