Funders Seek to Revitalize Indigenous Traditions


The U.S. government recently announced that it will invest $25 million to reincorporate bison herds on Indigenous lands. The American bison, once a mainstay of the Native American diet, is also synonymous with the destruction of Indigenous culture. Once numbering around 60 million, by the late 19th century there were only a few hundred left, their loss attributed to European settlers. Nowadays, U.S. tribes manage around 20,000 of these animals, and the infusion of funds should further boost their numbers. Government efforts to restore these iconic animals to tribal lands is echoed in the realm of private philanthropy, where some foundations are focused on helping to restore Indigenous culture and traditions, or utilize the wisdom of Native peoples to solve seemingly intractable environmental problems.

Food Sovereignty

The loss of traditional food sources such as the bison is one contributing factor to startlingly high rates of noncommunicable diseases such as obesity (48%) and diabetes (14.5%) among Native Americans. Staples such as venison, squash, greens, and fish have largely been replaced by the highly processed foodstuffs of the modern age.

However, this is only one of the factors at play. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the culture and traditions of American Indians and Alaska Natives “have been severely disrupted by colonialism, loss of land, and policies such as assimilation, relocation, and tribal termination.” The resulting historical trauma has led to challenges such as poverty and unemployment, leading not only to elevated disease rates, but also a higher likelihood of injury and premature death.

While it is impossible to erase these historical harms, some funders are hoping to help Indigenous peoples regain their culture and health by returning to traditional food ways. Through its Nourishing Native Foods and Health program, the First Nations Development Institute aims to expand the availability of healthy food in Native communities by building sustainable food systems, strengthening their control over these systems, and bolstering food security.

As the Institute’s Native food policy expert A-dae Romero-Briones points out, “Indigenous people and their food systems are resilient. We have withstood assault and attempts to starve, change, and alter every facet of our food systems, whether it be through displacement of our lands, alteration of our natural spaces like water and soil, or prohibition from our natural gathering and hunting grounds. We continue to push for access and protection of our food systems because we inherently know that it’s for the benefit of humanity that we care for our foods.”

Another funder looking to promote Indigenous food systems is the CS Fund and Warsh/Mott Legacy. Their Food Sovereignty program is centered on promoting traditional agricultural knowledge and agroecological practices in the U.S. and the Global South as a solution to challenges ranging from the corporatization of the food industry to the privatization of seeds and the degradation of soils. The program aims to build the capacity and power of Indigenous communities, communities of color, and social movements, focusing its efforts on heirloom seed preservation, healthy and fertile soil cultivation, and native pollinator protection and restoration.

Indigenous Language and Cultural Preservation

Native food sources were not the only thing to come under strain following European settlement. Since then, government policies have also chipped away at Indigenous languages and culture in North America. In the U.S., the passage of the Indian Civilization Act of 1819 led to the creation of a boarding school system under which of thousands of Indigenous children were separated from their families and stripped of their Native languages and traditions. In Canada, recent revelations of large numbers of unmarked graves at former Indian residential schools have brought to light the horrors of this system of forced assimilation.

Recently, efforts have been made to revitalize Indigenous languages, some 300 of which once existed in the U.S. alone. The theory of linguistic relativity posits that the language one speaks has a profound effect on one’s worldview. So, the logic follows that Indigenous peoples that have been deprived of their linguistic traditions are also missing out on an essential part of their cultural heritage.

Some funders hope to help Native people reclaim this heritage. The Endangered Language Fund works in the U.S. and abroad to support Native language documentation and preservation. Through its Native Voices Endowment Grants, the Fund provides grants to Native American tribes that came into contact with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, supporting both documentation and revitalization efforts for a number of languages. The Fund also supports linguistic fieldwork for endangered languages across the globe through its Language Legacies Grants program.

Other funders work across a range of issues related to the preservation of both Indigenous language and culture. Operating globally, Cultural Survival “advocates for Indigenous Peoples' rights and supports Indigenous communities’ self-determination, cultures and political resilience”. Its Keepers of the Earth Fund provides small grants to Indigenous-led efforts across a number of issue areas, including Indigenous language, culture, and knowledge revitalization. Another global funder, the Tamalpais Trust, “supports the development and strengthening of Indigenous-led initiatives, organizations, and global networks that promote and serve Indigenous cultures, economies, lifeways, values and knowledge, human rights, ceremonial practices, and the protection of sacred waters and lands.”

Indigenous crafts and other material knowledge are another facet of Native culture that are gradually succumbing to modern forces. The Endangered Material Knowledge Programme is dedicated to preserving this type of know-how for future generations, and provides grants to document and digitize material knowledge systems that are under threat or in danger of disappearing. Though not specifically geared towards Indigenous peoples, a glance at their ongoing projects reveals support for documenting Indigenous crafts such as textiles, weaving, and ceramics in areas such as Mexico, the Peruvian Amazon, and the Ecuadorian Highlands.

Environment and Climate Change

In addition to helping Indigenous groups recover lost food, language, and cultural traditions, some funders are looking to tap into ancestral knowledge to solve modern-day environmental challenges. Mass consumption and commodification have not served the planet well, and Indigenous culture, rooted in harmonious coexistence with nature, may hold the key to overcoming the resulting environmental ills.

Two awards seek to highlight such Indigenous-inspired environmental solutions. The Equator Prize honors “outstanding Indigenous peoples and local community initiatives that advance innovative nature-based solutions for sustainable development”, with a current emphasis on implementing the Global Biodiversity Framework. The LUSH Spring Prize is awarded biennially to projects that enable people to live more harmoniously with nature. One of the Prize categories is the Ancient and Indigenous Wisdom Award, which honors the “necessity and relevance of traditional and ecological knowledge, as well as ancestral and indigenous nature-based practices.” Those shortlisted for the 2023 Award include Indigenous groups in South America working to prevent oil extraction, restore degraded land, and preserve forest seeds, as well as a group in South Africa enabling First Nation communities to revive their language and reconnect with the land.

Other funders aid Indigenous people to carry out climate change adaptation and environmental protection initiatives in their own communities. Honor The Earth helps Native communities in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico adapt to the impacts of climate change through its Building Resilience in Indigenous Communities Initiative. Efforts funded through this program respond to climate change in ways that restore and protect Indigenous culture, with a focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy, and traditional food economies. The International Land and Forest Tenure Facility (the Tenure Facility) awards grants to secure the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities to their lands and forests. Funded activities include, but are not limited to, land and forest tenure initiatives that provide legal documentation, recognize rights, undertake community mapping, and resolve conflicts.

The loss of Indigenous foods, language, culture, and environmental wisdom has both tangible and intangible effects. It’s easy to count the number of bison lost to European settlement, but harder to quantify the losses that are incurred when a people loses not only their central food source but also a creature that is intricately tied to their culture. How can we measure the effects of not being able to tell a bedtime story to a child in one’s Native language, or losing the ability to weave a traditional textile? Hopefully, the efforts of funders such as the ones mentioned above will be one step towards allowing Indigenous people to reclaim their rightful heritage.