‘Their Culture Is Their Armor’: Findings of a Report on Indian Boys and Men

First Nations Development Institute’s in-depth report aims to encourage larger or repeat investment in Indian country.

“There were few surprises when it comes to making the lives of Indian boys and men better – cultural connection, cultural connection, and cultural connection,” Michael E. Roberts, Tlingit, president of the First Nations Development Institute, told Indian Country Media Network.

It took a 20-page report — “Advancing Positive Paths for Native American Boys & Young Men: A Project Evaluation,” released in late 2016 — to spell that out. But Roberts is quick to point out that, going into the work, First Nations Development Institute knew the answer to helping Native boys succeed.

“For American Indian youth, their culture is their armor, and programs that help Indian youth engage with their culture – through inter-generational culture and knowledge sharing – can be incredibly helpful in helping Indian youth avoid risky behavior and live more healthy lives,” he said.

At the heart of healing and empowerment for Native youth has always been: “connectivity, caring, and feeling valued,” he said.

The comprehensive report was prepared by First Nations Development Institute for a project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NEO Philanthropy, and the Kalliopeia Foundation.

The grant to First Nations was part of a larger Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Foundation project called the Forward Promise, an $11.5 million initiative focused on promoting opportunities for the health and success of middle school- and high school-aged boys and young men of color. RWJ launched its Forward Promise Initiative in 2014 because young men of color face daunting barriers to health that directly impact their potential to succeed and thrive. And access to a series of supports and conditions specifically designed to address these barriers can dramatically change their life course trajectory.

“Drawing parallels between American Indian boys and men and boys and men from other communities of color is not terribly difficult. The underlying drivers are poverty and a culture that seemingly tells them they are not valued,” Roberts said.

“Indian boys and young men feel the sting of institutional racism, not unlike the American Indian population as a whole,” Roberts added.

First Nations Development Institute, the Longmont, Colorado-based nonprofit, began investing in Native youth in 2002 by launching its Native Youth and Culture Fund (NYCF), created with generous support from the Kalliopeia Foundation, as well as other foundations and tribal, corporate and individual supporters. Through NYCF, First Nations partners with tribes, Native nonprofits and community groups that work in rural and reservation-based communities helping youth. In 2016, First Nations awarded grants to 24 Native youth programs across the U.S., totaling $432,000. Since 2002, First Nations has awarded a total of 328 grants to Native youth programs throughout the U.S., totaling $5.55 million.

First Nations joined the RWJ’s Forward Promise initiative in 2014, awarding a total of $300,000 along with technical assistance and training support to three Native-controlled organizations and two tribes: $50,000 to the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s Credit Recovery and Career Exploration: CRACE; $75,000 to the Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute’s Pueblo Pathways Project; $75,000 to the Tewa Women United’s Sengipaa Ing Vi: Journey of Becoming a Man; $50,000 to The STAR School’s All My Relations: Mentoring Native American Young Men and Boys; and $50,000 to the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo’s Empowering Tribal Warriors.

First Nations’ report breaks down why and how these programs were successful. Other organizations can replicate parts of these effective models. First Nations’ hope is that the report will also encourage more investment in Native youth.

“We’re always trying to publish lessons learned, for a number of reasons,” Roberts said. “One is to help other Indian communities that may not be a part of the project, and also to inform philanthropy that gives a very paltry less than one half of one percent of grant dollars to Indian programs.”

While Roberts said he applauds the RWJ Foundation for at least including Native boys and men in the Promise Forward initiative, he quickly undercut that praise. Roberts underscored a truth plaguing Indian country — that American Indian youth and Native people at large remain largely invisible.  “This is a really modest investment — and I’m not even sure if modest is the right word,” Roberts said.  “I think this is a pretty damn small investment from the foundation committee to Indian youth. In some ways, they should be ashamed at how little they’ve invested, because the opportunity is so grand to make an impact.”

First Nations Development Institute’s report shed light on early intervention techniques, mentorship methods, and individual project outcomes and observations.

“We think we got, not groundbreaking information in the report, but information that hopefully would be read by other funders and folks in Indian country in general, and encourage a larger or repeat investment by foundations in Indian country,” Roberts said.

Next Steps

First Nations’ work with the RWJ on its Forward Promise initiative doesn’t stop there. First Nations has been asked to join the national program office for the Forward Promise initiative, centered at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “The Forward Promise initiative was a small grant program through RWJ that proved to be enormously successful with very little investment. So, they’ve come back and made a fairly large investment, creating a national program office for their Forward Promise initiative,” Roberts said.

First Nations will serve on the national advisory committee to help the RWJ Foundation understand how it might be better at reaching out to and funding Indian country programs. “We’re hoping this renewed Forward Promise Initiative will utilize First Nations [Development Institute] for re-granting and/or technical assistance to their Indian country grantees,” Roberts said. “And we fully believe they will make more grants to Indian country from that program.”