Indigenous people across the world have been building power. We build power through maintaining and passing on our songs, stories, and languages; through prayer, healing, and speaking truth. We build power through defending our lands, waters, and communities through grassroots direct action and international human rights work. And we build power through visioning and creating economic models and practices that reflect our teachings and values and honor our relationships.
Our Indigenous governments, seeking to recover from colonial subjugation and dependence, now sometimes engage in the same exploitive economic practices used to decimate our Peoples, causing intense internal conflict. For example, we may forego environmental protections on our lands or sign away our rights as legal sovereigns to attract capital investment. Collective land ownership and community decision-making processes are not attractive to most investors, leaving many Nations feeling like they have to set their cultural responsibilities and spiritual values aside as they pursue economic opportunities for their people. As Anishinaabe scholar and activist Renee Gurneau said, “We have become financially dependent on our own cultural destruction.” This has never been acceptable, and now is the time to recreate and reimagine our futures and economies, carrying on the legacies of those who have kept our people, cultures, and values alive.
We understand that an inherent part of the liberation of Indigenous Peoples, and all Peoples, is the re-establishment of thriving economies that are independent of colonial control, and, critically, that are based in and reflective of our traditional teachings, understandings, and values. These values are the basis of building a more inclusive and regenerative future that braids together strong economies, equity, planet, and health. NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power, is centered in these values to transform narratives, investment, philanthropy, and build connected movements to advance the defense, regenerative development, and decolonization efforts of Indigenous Peoples. We believe that by building Indigenous power, we are inherently supporting the movement towards equity and justice for all people and the planet.
Our work to transform the capitalist space and systems in which we operate is as much a part of our movement building work as our community organizing efforts to stop the Keystone XL pipeline or the border wall construction on Kumeyaay and Tohono O’odham lands. In recognition of this idea, NDN Collective created NDN Fund, the impact investing and lending arm of the Collective. NDN Fund is an emerging national Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) providing financing for large scale Indigenous regenerative community and national development projects that dramatically scale up investment and shift all decision-making power to Indigenous Peoples.
NDN Fund’s investment strategy is grounded in recognizing the interconnectedness of all things and our responsibilities to our homelands and each other. We provide blended capital, offering debt financing at low rates with flexible terms, and also help align and obtain capital from grant, equity, and other sources where it aligns with our mission. We are developing our capacity building programs so that we can provide customized technical and business services to communities to support development that reflects what is most important to our people and way of life. Our technical assistance also supports advanced industry expertise across our lending areas to help our communities innovate in areas like renewables, housing, social enterprise, and agriculture.
NDN Fund is leading the nation in resilient and regenerative finance principles based on our Indigenous values of relationship and kinship. We understand that relationships create life, and it is the quality, balance, and health of our interconnected relationships that determine whether an act is going to be healthy and regenerative of life or not. We place central value on maintaining and regenerating healthy and balanced relationships with the land, all of the beings that give us life, and with each other. NDN Fund prioritizes green and sustainable development practices into our underwriting process, but we equally stress the importance of building resiliency and self-determination among our people. Our Resilient & Regenerative Capital Screen includes questions that prioritize biomimicry, the related health outcomes, and the types of partnerships and relationships our projects create or strengthen.
Part of maintaining good relationships is understanding that generosity, reciprocity, and not taking more than you need is important. We support Indigenous entrepreneurs, businesses, and community development projects that give back to the sources of life and ensure that the benefits of a project, business, or program are felt and received by many. Building too much excess resource without distributing it is counter to the teachings of our cultures and the teachings of the land. We support businesses that value cooperation and collaboration over competition, and who are responsive to feedback and change.
Grounded in our values of Indigenous liberation and justice, we support work that uplifts our nationhood, human rights, land rights, and political power. We recognize that the people most impacted by systems of injustice must be the ones to lead the way to justice. The businesses and projects we invest in demonstrate that they serve and are engaged with community and have mechanisms in place for localized decision-making, accountability, and equitability in leadership. Part of NDN Fund and NDN Collective’s work on transformative systems’ change is to help bring this knowledge to the private investment and public sectors that fund most of the larger development projects. We are creating a paradigm shift of how these investors think of investment returns and risk; i.e., today’s financials versus tomorrow’s livelihood.
Red Cliff Fish Company operations. Photo courtesy of Red Cliff Fish Company.
Indigenous communities and Nations from across our territories have been moving this work forward in strong ways, creating businesses and building economies that reflect our values and honor the Earth. One example is the Red Cliff Fish Company in Bayfield, Wisconsin. The Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa finalized the construction of their fish processing facility in Fall of 2020. The business not only provides economic opportunity for the community, but is furthering the Tribe’s food sovereignty goals, keeping an ancestral relationship with Lake Superior and the fish while operating a zero-waste processing facility where fish waste is composted for community agriculture at the Red Cliff Mino Bimaadiziiwin Farm. They are sustainably fishing to offer products to the regional market year-round, utilizing ecologically friendly packaging and preserving the health of the ecosystem by closing the fisheries during the spawning period.
Another example is Navajo Power, a majority Indigenous-owned solar electric development enterprise operating out of the Navajo Nation. In 2020, Navajo Power received NDN Fund’s first loan, consulting support, and equity contributions. They are actively developing utility scale solar utilizing a values-based business model, providing culturally appropriate technical assistance to their community partners. Navajo Power has an executive compensation cap of 5:1, while 10 percent of the company ownership is held in a “Turquoise Share” that must go to funding community benefits if the company is sold. A minimum of 80 percent of profits are reinvested in new projects and community benefits, and part of the company’s financing obligates them to also invest into off-grid solar to provide electricity to some of the many unelectrified homes on the reservation.
Buffalo are sacred in many Native American cultures. Wolakota Regenerative Buffalo Range in Mission, SD, is raising buffalo while restoring relationships to land while promoting economic, food, and Tribal sovereignty. Photo courtesy of Wolakota Regenerative Buffalo Range.
NDN Fund is also honored to be investing in Wolakota Regenerative Buffalo Range of South Dakota, a venture operated by the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation through the Rosebud Farm Company. The purpose and work of the Wolakota Regenerative Buffalo Range is to “raise and harvest buffalo using culturally appropriate, humane, and ecologically regenerative practices while restoring our relationship to the land and promoting economic, food, and Tribal sovereignty.” They are engaged in a pilot project to offer community shares and have built strong partnerships to move this work forward, deeply rooted in their responsibility to care for and honor the buffalo and the land.
Investing in Indigenous-led development is also a gift for the broader world. An economy that functions based on the perpetual growth of extractive exploitation of land and people is destined to fail. Indigenous creative minds are joined by many others, working to build economies that can provide for the livelihoods of people, protect and conserve natural resources, honor workers, and build the power of entire communities and regional economies rather than preserve concentrated gain for a limited few. Investing in these enterprises and supporting your local Indigenous businesses and trade networks is a strong way to build our free and powerful Nations. With creative determination and relationship building, we can model the systemic transformation of trade and economy from one based on the exploitation of our ecological and human relations toward one based on care, reciprocity, and the regeneration of life.
— Dr. PennElys Droz (Anishinaabe/Wyandot) is NDN Collective program officer and NDN Fund steering committee member. Nikki Pieratos (Bois Forte Band of Chippewa) is managing director of the NDN Fund.
Top photo: Youth harvesting camas. Photo by Sarah Manning, NDN Collective.