Spiritual Core of Indigenous Social Justice
Tia Oros Peters and Vanessa Whang talk about maintaining your vision and integrity in rooms of power.
By Vanessa Whang
"Indigenous peoples were not necessarily seeking the ‘American Dream.’ We actually didn’t want the pie being shoved down our throats…. We are trying to retrieve and maintain the ideas and philosophies that come from Indigenous perspectives."
"At the core, there is the sense of responsibility, not entitlement. It’s a spiritual core."
Tia Oros Peters (Zuni), executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, has been involved in community organizing and Indigenous issue advocacy for two and half decades. She is also actively engaged in human rights and international diplomacy.
Vanessa Whang joined the California Council for the Humanities in 2008 as director of programs. Before joining the staff there, she was a New York-based consultant with an interest in cultural equity, arts philanthropy, multidisciplinary arts production, community cultural development, and cross-sector partnerships.
SEVENTH GENERATION FUND FOR INDIAN DEVELOPMENT (SGF) is an Indigenous nonprofit organization dedicated solely to promoting and maintaining the uniqueness of Native peoples throughout the Americas. SGF emerged from the political, social, and cultural revitalization movements in Indigenous communities during the mid-1960s and 1970s and was founded in 1977 by the late Daniel Bomberry (Salish/Cayuga). The organization derives its name from a precept of the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy), which mandates that chiefs consider the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation yet to come. This principle guides SGF in its frontline work with all the grassroots Native communities it supports in revitalization, restoration, preservation, planning, and development projects. SGF has grown in vision and direction over the decades. It has advocated for the sovereign rights of Indigenous Nations at the annual Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues of the United Nations and has helped establish local, state, national, and international coalitions for social justice and human rights. Today it lends its support and extensive expertise through an integrated program of advocacy, small grants, training and technical assistance, fiscal management, and leadership development. It supports programs and projects that include environmental and social justice, sustainable communities and alternative forms of energy, recovery of tribal languages, protecting sacred sites and traditional spiritual practices, and documenting tribal histories to preserve tribal customs and cultural traditions for future generations.
• • • •
In January 2008, I interviewed Tia Oros Peters of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development to learn about how the organization has navigated through different realms to become one of the largest and longest-standing organizations of its kind in the U.S., and what she, as a long-time staff person and now executive director of the Fund, has learned and would share about her experiences of crossing through tremendously diverse and challenging cultural terrain.
• • • •
In the spring of 1993, Tia Oros Peters began her work at the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development answering phones, working on programs, doing whatever needed to be done—as many do at small nonprofit organizations. For Tia, working at SGF has been much more than an individual endeavor.
“My daughter is 17 and she grew up in it. Chris [my husband] came in 1989 as a senior program officer at a time when a lot of restructuring was going on … and was one of the last ones left standing through some transitions at that time. He’s now president and CEO.”
Founded in the 1970s, SGF sees itself as working in the realm of social justice, and the work has historically been culturally centered. It was developed by elders concerned about building capacity in their communities. But distinct from some other groups of color organizing at that same time, “it wasn’t about getting a piece of the pie,” explains Tia.
“Indigenous peoples were not necessarily seeking the ‘American Dream’. We actually didn’t want the pie being shoved down our throats.… We are trying to retrieve and maintain the ideas and philosophies that come from Indigenous perspectives.”
The work of SGF is conceived in response to issues in its many communities.
“We see ourselves as an operating foundation in a sense—though we are not that formally. We have always been a part of supporting what grassroots people need. Arts have been central—but tied to everything else—like sovereignty and cultural vitality.”
When I ask about the various realms that must be traversed in her work, Tia first emphasizes the vast diversity that exists within the Native communities that are the center of SGF’s work.
“We walk in many worlds. Local, regional, national, international, family, and clan. There are a multitude of worlds, even within the Native world. We could be speaking one day with someone from the circumpolar region, and from Latin America the next. A meeting of two different Indians is already an international meeting. I believe if we can maintain our core, we can remain steady.
But in addition to looking inward to the communities they serve, Tia also highlights the importance of looking outward and engaging the different fields and sectors that must be negotiated in order to be effective.
We can’t just be in our communities. We need to have all sides going. The external work is an essential piece.… In the environmental arena, there are the academics and intellectuals, and there are the Earth First-type of activists. Within the arts arena, there are different issues. A lot of Native people don’t consider themselves artists. But when you go to Zuni [the reservation in New Mexico], you see that everyone is an artist. But there are also people who do consider themselves artists. And the categories in the art world don’t necessarily hold. Some work is legislative. Sacred site protection can involve spiritual practice as well as environmental justice. There are all kinds of protocols. But we try to go into these different realms in the same way that we would anywhere else. We do have to adjust our terminology, but we need to maintain a standard.”
I asked what she means by “maintain a standard,” and with that Tia illustrates through examples what SGF’s mission to “maintain the uniqueness of Native peoples” means in practice in rooms of power.
“Sometimes people think they have to be something different wherever they go to change to each circumstance, or become aggressive because other people are behaving that way. But, for instance, we would never raise our voice to make a point. We would always make room for another person. We would always stand by an ally. We would never air our dirty laundry in public. We don’t change our behavior because there is a funder in the room. Does it seem powerful to run after a funder?
We can’t control how others behave. But we know we need to maintain the standard. You don’t cut off your arm to get something with your hand. How do you go back to face your community if you compromise? We won’t accomplish our goals if we aren’t who we really are.… It’s easy to get wrapped up in the energy of a meeting. If you see everyone getting in a line for something, you get in the line too, but you may not know where you are going. Do you know what you are in the line for? You have to maintain a sense of personal and cultural integrity.”
Tia touches on the complex dynamics that many people of cultural minorities face when they are the only ones of their race, ethnicity, nationality, class, etc., at a gathering with a preponderance of those of the dominant culture. Under such circumstances, it can not only be a challenge to stay true to one’s sense of self/identity/way of being, one can also be put in the position of ‘representing one’s people’ (whoever they might be perceived to be) by the majority, whether one has explicitly assumed that mantle or not.
“I think for Native Americans the challenge is being one or two in a room of 200. We try to sit in solidarity with other Native people in meetings. But look at the arts. People talk about individual artists a lot, but Native people might not think in that way. They might think about what is important for their family, for their community. Not just about individuals. It’s difficult to go into other forums where people don’t have that way of thinking. Being outnumbered is hard.
In meetings, lots of people run for the microphone. It’s how they show leadership. But it’s a culture clash. If you are not leaping to get time on the agenda or to the mic, people interpret that as your being too shy, not showing leadership, or needing public-speaking skills. Sometimes Native people might say they need to think and pray. And they mean it. And then other people think it’s cute. So what do we do?
We are so few that people look at us as if we represent all of our people. So you feel like you have to be up on all the issues. We know we are observed a lot. We are in the global region of North America from the point of view of the U.N. Our goal is to maintain a standard because we know that others are judged by our behavior.”
Given that being in these kinds of situations where the power dynamics can be, at best, uncomfortable, or, at worst, emotionally/spiritually/ physically intimidating, the question arises: How does the Fund find ways to remain open, to build bridges, to reach its goals under these circumstances?
“We talk with the staff about this all the time. It’s one thing to go to a traditional gathering, it’s another to go to the Council on Foundations. Your core will be shaken. You have to be prepared to have someone you think is your ally ignore you or to feel unwelcomed. We make sure people don’t go to things alone. We have lost people.… There have been issues of physical safety, spiritual safety.
Sometimes people need to take time to think. We are waiters, not jumpers. You have to be careful—there may not even be water in there. Sometimes you need someone to pull you out of something you jumped into. Sometimes you need to debrief with someone. You need to maintain the tie, the connection. We don’t throw people out there alone. Of course, you don’t want to crush people’s creativity and independence. But we want to nurture people, so we travel together. It’s harder to lose yourself if you keep the connection—especially with younger people traveling.
The conscious and thoughtful mentoring of staff and organizational representatives to be prepared to negotiate unfamiliar realms—particularly ones of power, influence, and resources—and to provide a safety net when deeply felt challenges to one’s way of being can arise when in those realms, seems to me a brilliant way of building essential capacity and sustainability of human resources and consequently of the organization itself.”
I ask Tia what else has been important in helping to overcome the difficulties and potential pitfalls of ‘crossing over’ into different worlds and sectors.
“The traditional lifestyle builds discipline. It creates a personality type. I think everyone has the potential. We really look at our organization as a family—that includes our projects. We have had relationships with some projects for 20 years. We just had a gathering of 250 people in July—grantees, project partners, family members. We have a gathering like this about every two years. This year, we even had two people from the Masaai Nation in Africa come who learned of our work through the U.N. And now they are part of our family. There are supports built from doing this. Say, if someone we knew was stuck somewhere in New Mexico, we could probably call on someone out there to help them. The White Roots of Peace go in the four directions. If you are in trouble, you could follow that root and seek asylum, shelter. We’re small, but the work is huge. We are very serious about this and we know it is a lifetime commitment to the people.”
Having just celebrated its 30th year, the Seventh Generation Fund is one of the longest standing organizations of its kind. How has it managed to sustain and extend its work through difficult times? Tia explains.
“Slow, mindful growth has always been what the organization has done. I think that is why we have lasted. Right now we are the largest we have ever been, with the most staff. We moved into a new building. But it’s been really a slow evolution. We have 11 people on staff, but only seven full-time. Jonathon [Freeman] is the only program officer and we cover the Americas! But we are all about program. We have a very involved board of directors (but they are not micromanagers!). They are all leaders in their own communities. They all run projects. Our grants are small. We could put all our grant monies into one place and it still would not make a huge dent since the needs of Native communities are multifaceted and require focus and extended dedication. It breaks our heart to decline support of a worthy and innovative project simply because we do not have the regranting funds available at the time of their request.
This work is not for everyone. It can tear you up. There is so much need. The poverty, the suicide, cancer, violence, torture survivors, the loss of sacred sites. Some people can find a way to resolve this for themselves. This is long-term work. We’re putting down a stepping-stone. In contemporary society, it’s hard to be patient. But dancing can help teach you that!
People on the SGF staff are so dedicated. They are often in at 6 a.m. and stay until 8 p.m. But you do it because you know: It’s not for me, it’s for the community. I wish we could pay everyone more. We have a retirement plan, health insurance, and we have spiritual leave, aside from sick leave or vacation. But we struggle with hiring not only because we are located in a rural location, but also because we can’t really afford to pay people what they would be able to make outside in an urban setting or in a more mainstream organization. But then we would not be who are, what we are. Also, we don’t take state or federal funding. We raise all of our budget each year from foundations and individual donors.
We really are a grassroots Indigenous organization by and for Indigenous peoples. It’s about supporting traditional Native people to do what they need to do, in accordance with the manner they want to do it in. We have never changed. It’s not glamorous. At the core, there is the sense of responsibility, not entitlement. It’s a spiritual core.
The Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee speaks of how you need to walk gently on the skin of mother earth because the faces of the unborn are watching you. It’s like your grandma is always watching you! We are striving for that way of working. Natural law is hard. If breached, it is unforgiving. It will seek its own justice.
We would not have survived for 30 years without humility and collectivity or without vision and integrity. We are striving for harmony—within here and externally. You have to find common ground to be sustainable.”
Original CAN/API publication: March 2008