Vulnerable Communities: How has the COVID-19 Pandemic affected Indigenous People in the Russian Arctic?

With the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the world has found itself in a global health emergency, which has caused a dramatic loss of human life worldwide and brought normal life around the world to a halt for the better part of a year. The Arctic Institute’s COVID-19 series offers an interesting compilation of best practices, challenges and diverse approaches to the pandemic applied by various Arctic states, regions, and communities. We hope that this series will contribute to our understanding of how the region has coped with this unprecedented crisis as well as provide food for thought about possibilities and potential of development of regional cooperation.

In a town of 30,000 in the Russian North in the spring of 2020, the streets of Dudinka resounded with public announcements from the local “Big Ben” clocktower asking residents to stay at home in six different languages. Five of these were local Indigenous languages – Dolgan, Nganasan, Evenki, Enets and Nenets. “Dear Taimyr residents, please stay at home. Take care of yourself and your loved ones.”

The multi-language initiative was positively received by residents as a reminder of local cultural diversity, but it was also a wakeup call that Indigenous communities in the Arctic may be the most vulnerable population group to the effects of COVID-19. The pandemic has exposed the distinct health vulnerabilities of Arctic natives and created socio-economic disruptions to their unique lifestyles.1)

In this article, the consequences of the pandemic on Russian Arctic Indigenous communities will be analyzed. The article seeks to raise awareness of how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the Russian North, one of many crises worldwide where Indigenous communities are disproportionately afflicted. This piece focuses on Russia, but many of the findings apply to Indigenous groups in other parts of the Arctic, such as the Alaska Natives whose lives and livelihoods were also disrupted. “American Indian and Alaska Native families are more vulnerable to the pandemic than U.S. residents overall due to the legacies of colonialism, racism, and the federal government’s failure to support these communities’ social and economic well-being,” writes Joshuah Marshall of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.2)

COVID-19 in the North

Isolation and small population density have allowed the Northern regions of the Arctic states to be relatively safe compared to other parts of the world, but this is not necessarily true in the Russian North. Some of the most severely impacted regions of Russia are in the Arctic. The Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug has the highest coronavirus cases per capita of all 85 Russian federal subjects and four of the top ten federal subjects by deaths per capita include the Arctic. Murmansk Oblast has a population seven times smaller than that of neighboring Finland or Norway, but the Russian region has more coronavirus cases than either country. What factors explain this great disparity?3)

Circumpolar map of Arctic regions colored red to show coronavirus infections in Russia, United States, Norway, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, and Greenland
Arctic Center at the University of Northern IowaArctic COVID-19 Report Card, September 2020, indicating that the most affected regions are found in Russia, namely Murmansk Oblast and the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug.

It is believed that COVID-19 made its way to the Russian North by workers migrating from across Russia and the former Soviet Union to work at the industrial and extractive projects in the Arctic. One example is Russia’s second-largest COVID-19 outbreak in mid-April at the Belokamenka liquefied natural gas plant in Murmansk Oblast. At one point, twenty percent of the 11,000 employees working at the Belokamenka project operated by Novatek, Russia’s second-largest natural gas producer, were reported to be infected.4)

Controlling Belokamenka

Regional authorities responded quickly to the outbreak by limiting contact between workers and local residents, introducing a field hospital to treat hundreds of patients, and mobilizing the “Princess Anastasia” cruise ship as a floating hotel for healthy staff. However, construction continued at the plant and the epidemiological measures were hard to enforce. In a televised government meeting, the Governor of Murmansk Oblast Andrei Chibis told President Putin, “We did not stop the project, because it is important for the economy of the region and of the whole country.”5)

Four men - government officials and emergency workers in winter coats meeting at the site of a coronavirus outbreak in Murmansk Oblast
Government of Murmansk OblastGovernor Andrei Chibis (left) with staff of the Russian Ministry of Emergencies, April 2020.

Activists from the Murmansk office of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny blamed Novatek management for the ineffective quarantine regime imposed on workers in Belokamenka, which lacked an effective 14-day isolation period and adequate social distancing both during working hours and in barracks. “Novatek is obliged to compensate all expenses related to the emergency in Belokamenka because of inaction and a disregard for people,” said Violetta Grudina, coordinator of the Murmansk Navalny office.6) The situation in Belokamenka was declared under control by Governor Chibis in June. Similar stories of migrant workers bringing coronavirus and eventually spreading it to nearby communities were reported in extractive projects and mines across Kamchatka, Krasnoyarsk Krai, the Yamal Peninsula, and the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). Overall, seasonal worker migration often begets an outbreak of COVID-19. The influx of fishing crews to Alaska may be a reason for the outbreak in the U.S. Arctic.7)

Indigenous People at Higher Risk

Indigenous peoples suffer higher rates of pathogen infection compared to non-Indigenous groups around the world and throughout history. From the arrival of smallpox and measles via the first European colonizers in the Americas to the measles outbreaks in South America in the twentieth century, Indigenous groups have always been one of the most vulnerable demographic groups during such crises. In the Brazilian Amazon, Indigenous peoples die of coronavirus at a rate of 9.1 percent, nearly double the 5.2 percent rate among the Brazilian population.8) In May, the Navajo Nation surpassed New York for the highest infection rate in the United States. The Native American territory, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, is described as a “food desert” as it struggles with mal- and undernutrition during the coronavirus pandemic.9)

A report from the Centers for Disease Control found that non-Hispanic American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN) account for 0.7 percent of the U.S. population, but 1.3 percent of COVID-19 cases. AIAN are less likely to have access to healthcare and more likely to live in poverty. As of a 2018 census, 22 percent of AIAN under 64 years old were uninsured, the highest of all racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.10) With the exception of the Sámi in the Nordic countries, Indigenous populations’ health is worse than that of their non-Indigenous counterparts across the Arctic. “Minority status may contribute to some of the observed health disparities. The majority health and social systems may not be sensitive to the needs of marginalized minority populations in their midst,” write T. Kue Young et al.11) In general, the distinct threat to Indigenous peoples around the world is attributed to the fact that they are more likely to suffer from malnutrition, poor access to sanitation, and inadequate healthcare.

Natives of Russia

Researchers from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow prepared a report for the Arctic Council that found that Chukchi, Nenets, and other natives of the Russian North are more susceptible to COVID-19 due to underlying health reasons that weaken the immune system. These include a lack of iodine, calcium, zinc, and vitamin D, and widespread alcoholism and respiratory diseases among Indigenous communities.12) Furthermore, Indigenous peoples are disproportionately vulnerable to infectious diseases because of their more than a thousand years of isolation from other societies and therefore lower resistance to foreign pathogens, a phenomenon referred to as “civilizational immunity.” Indigenous peoples of the Arctic suffered from higher mortality than non-Indigenous populations during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic and other outbreaks. 80 percent of influenza deaths during the crisis in Alaska were among Native people.13)

The distinct threat of COVID-19 to older generations poses a serious threat to the survival of ancient cultures and languages. Elders play a crucial role in passing on traditional knowledge and culture to future generations. “There are Indigenous peoples in Russia with only a few elders who can speak their languages, like Itelmens in Kamchatka,” says Gennady Shchukin, a Dolgan elder from Taimyr. “Losing these elders would risk losing whole cultures.” Elders play an important role in how Indigenous communities cope with pathogens as they pass on strategies for dealing with outbreaks such as the 1918 pandemic through oral history. Native languages were already at risk before the pandemic as fewer children were learning them from their families. “The only way to preserve the languages of indigenous minorities is to preserve their way of life,” said Grigory Ledkov, President of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON).14)

Multi-colored map of Russian North, Siberia and Far East showing Saami, Veps, Nenets, Mansi, Khant, Sekup, Ket, Enets, Nganasan, Dolgan, Evenk, Yukagir, Chuvan, Chukchi, Koryak, Inuplat, Aleut, Even Indigenous Native languages
ANSIPRAIndigenous peoples of the North, Siberia, and Far East of Russia according to language groups.

Social and Economic Effects

Indigenous communities worldwide have been adaptive to measures combating the spread of disease and proactive in imposing a lockdown. However, besides the disproportionate health risk, there are indirect socioeconomic effects of the pandemic that arose from the lockdown. At the end of March 2020, most parts of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), Arkhangelsk and Murmansk Oblasts, and the Yamalo-Nenets and Chukotka Autonomous Okrugs were under lockdown with a strict self-isolation regime. “Infectious and mental processes are closely interconnected, especially among the most vulnerable categories of the population including Indigenous peoples,” says Dr. Yury Sumarokov from Northern State Medical University in Arkhangelsk. Indigenous people “have a higher risk of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. During a pandemic, multiplied by isolation and possible economic problems, it is certainly even higher. This is noted by us and our colleagues abroad. It is very important to know and help in time.”

For example, the physical distancing between youth and elders has distressed young children who are unable to interact with their grandparents and older relatives. Indigenous families often share crowded households with multiple generations, making it harder to socially distance and easier for viruses to spread.15) To combat the spread, Russian authorities placed restrictions on hunting, fishing, and herding, but these measures did not apply to Indigenous peoples because their survival depends on these practices. The representatives of RAIPON stressed the importance of self-supplying by traditional methods for the wellbeing of their communities.16)

“Self-isolation and unpredictable damages to demand for products have caused a great deal of damage,” says Sergey Sizonenko, Deputy Chairman of the Taimyr Duma and a Dolgan member of the RAIPON Business Council. In response, the Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs sent an official letter to regional leaders asking them to closely monitor Indigenous peoples’ access to public services, healthcare, and essential goods. The agency recommended conducting remote monitoring and ensuring Indigenous communities’ access to food and supplies. The agency then allocated 150 million rubles for additional social security payments to Indigenous people that can be applied for remotely.17)

“Since the early hours of the morning, I have been receiving messages and phone calls from rural areas expressing gratitude,” said Sergei Yamkin, Chairman of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug Legislative Assembly. “The increase in compensation for the nomadic population in lump sum payments will help tackle the pressing problems of those who live in the tundra.”18)

Disparate Impacts

The lockdown affects men and women differently. Indigenous women around the world are more likely to work in underpaid sectors and within the informal economy, and face extra burdens as they are more likely to be the caretakers of children, elders, and relatives. On the other hand, Russian Indigenous women are more likely to receive social security payments from the government due to their employment in state-funded sectors such as schools and medical facilities. In contrast, Indigenous men are more likely to work in hunting, fishing, herding, and sectors that were more disrupted by the lockdown.19)

Due to the quarantine and self-isolation, Indigenous women may suffer from an increased risk of domestic violence. “Domestic violence helplines and shelters across the world are reporting rising calls for help,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women. The global surge in domestic violence is described as a “shadow pandemic.”20) “Victims of domestic violence often do not have anyone to ask for help and no institution to appeal to,” Anastasia Ulturgasheva commented of Siberian Indigenous minorities. “In Yakutia, Indigenous women constitute one of the most vulnerable sectors of the local population. If they are married into a family of a dominant ethnic group, they tend to experience further Othering and isolation.”21)

Three Russian fishers fishing on a cloudy day in icy frozen water with industrial plants in background in Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia, Siberia
Peter ProkoschFishing along the Yenisei river in Dudinka, Krasnoyarsk Krai, February 1992.

Further measures include the regional authorities restricting reindeer herders from entering settlements out of fear that they may come in contact with infected workers from the extractive projects. This policy disrupted the local economy by limiting nomadic peoples’ ability to buy food and sell their products like reindeer meat and fish. The remoteness of Indigenous settlements may have been an advantage in the early stages of the spread of the virus, but the distance from other settlements and public services exacerbate the situation for nomadic Indigenous people who subsist in the tundra.22)

“The programs dealing with the coronavirus situation depend on the financial status of the region,” said Dmitry Berezhkov, an Indigenous rights activist and former vice-president of RAIPON. “For example, in Yamal, the authorities gave notebook computers to students because of severe problems related to education in the time of the pandemic. In those regions where they have no Internet, they must study using their phones. In Yakutia, many students came to school for their assignment, wrote their homework on paper, and returned to school to submit it to teachers.”

After the onset of the lockdown, residents of the Far North asked that authorities allow nomadic reindeer herders to move between settlements and the tundra. “It is almost impossible to impose a self-isolation for reindeer herders and nomads because their work is related to grazing and ensuring the safety of the reindeer population,” said Matvey Chuprov, Chairman of the Nenets and North Indigenous Peoples Commission.23)

A Reminder of Other Crises

The pandemic is yet another global crisis where Indigenous people make up one of the most vulnerable population groups. For instance, the Norilsk disaster in May 2020, which saw a fuel storage tank spilling over 20,000 tons of diesel fuel into the environment, damaged rivers, reindeer, fish, lakes, and land, and afflicted Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods. Indigenous activists wrote a letter to SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk urging him not to buy nickel, copper, and other resources from Nornickel (the company responsible for the spill) until the corporation conducted an independent evaluation of its pollution in the Arctic. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin oversaw a provision in September through which “extracting companies are to compensate for loss or damage to the [environment of] Indigenous peoples of Russia based on a special agreement.”24)

On the Yamal Peninsula, the nomadic Nenets people migrate hundreds of miles each year to take their reindeer to pastures. Nowadays, some of those paths and rivers across which they travel may be on thin ice due to thawing permafrost. Indigenous people are regarded as the group most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis in the Arctic, even though they have long known about the risks of environmental degradation on public health through their ancient knowledge and connection with the natural world. French social anthropologist Jean Malaurie teaches that the Inuit’s thousands of years of knowledge and wisdom are on par with other great schools of thought.

Looking to the future, Russia may take Indigenous issues more seriously. Russia will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May 2021 and Russia’s Senior Arctic Official remarked that “Arctic inhabitants including Indigenous peoples, will of course be stressed and underlined” in the coming term.25) Russia’s official Arctic policy was updated in March 2020 with a noticeable elevation of the “improvement of the well-being of indigenous peoples in the Russian Arctic” to the level of national interest.26)

“It will be public relations for external actors, but it will hardly improve the lives of local Indigenous people,” said Dmitry Berezhkov. “A lot of training, meetings and conferences will happen, but they will discuss Indigenous culture, not rights. Those people who raise issues over ownership of land are declared foreign agents not working in the interests of the state.”

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly distressing to the Indigenous communities of the Russian North, disrupting the local economies and putting the survival of cultures at risk. The authorities’ reactive measures had varied levels of success, largely dependent on the resources of the regions. As Russia underscores the importance of Indigenous issues in its upcoming Arctic Council chairmanship and the world experiences more lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus, we will pay close attention to what comes of the rhetoric from regional and national authorities and hope for a noticeable improvement in living standards for Indigenous communities.



The Sustainable Development Working Group of the Arctic Council will launch the first water, energy and food nexus study in the Arctic. The project will identify interconnections between water, energy and food systems in ways that will contribute to the attainment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the Arctic

In 2015, the United Nations introduced the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At the core of the Agenda are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that serve as benchmarks for achieving equality, prosperity and environmental sustainability around the world.

While Agenda 2030 is a global platform, the Sustainable Development Working Group of the Arctic Council (SDWG) recognizes that its activities naturally contribute towards achieving SDG targets and advancing the sustainable development agenda in the Arctic. However, before those linkages can be further explored, the SDWG stresses the need to better understand the nexus – or the connections and interactions – that occur between SDG targets.

“Simply ticking off SDG targets and failing to consider the nexus between them could result in ill-informed and unintended policy outcomes,” cautioned Stefán Skjaldarson, Chair of SDWG. “For example, advancing one target may inadvertently have a negative impact on the ability to reach other targets. These oversights are particularly problematic in some regions of the Arctic where Indigenous peoples experience greater challenges relative to their national averages. That is why it is so important to first focus on nexus research to ensure that SDG targets can be sustainably achieved in the Arctic.”

WEF-Livelihood Nexus (John Natcher)

In October 2020, the SDWG launched its newly approved project to study the relationship between water, energy and food (WEF) – three pervasive systems that intricately interact in the circumpolar North. This project is led by Canada, Finland and Iceland. It will examine three SDGs: SDG 2 – ending hunger and achieving food security for all; SDG 6 – ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all; and SDG 7 – ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. This is the first WEF nexus study conducted in the Arctic. This analysis will inform research planning and effective policies for sustainable development in the region.


To study the nexus between water, energy and food, the SDWG will look at synergies and trade-offs between these systems. Synergies include the positive effects of achieving multiple SDG targets through simultaneous interventions, for example through mutually beneficial infrastructure. Trade-offs occur when advancements towards one target have a negative impact on the ability to reach others, whether due to environmental degradation or intensive use of resources.

In addition to calculating the positive and negative interactions between WEF systems, the SDWG will also evaluate the potential impacts on cultural ecosystem services, environmentally based livelihoods and the territorial rights and interests of Indigenous peoples. For example, wind energy may have a positive effect on SDG 7 (sustainable energy) but a negative impact on the livelihoods of herding peoples.


In the past, WEF nexus studies have been criticized for prioritizing the maximization of resources use and extraction over the livelihoods of resource dependent communities. The SDWG’s project will advance a novel approach to WEF nexus research that explicitly includes the livelihoods of Arctic residents into a system where social-ecological interactions are prevalent and sustainable solutions are found.

The oversights in past WEF nexus studies fail to acknowledge inequalities felt at the community level. Indigenous peoples in the Arctic are heavily reliant on WEF systems to meet their livelihood needs, yet disproportionately experience insecurities in those systems. These inequalities have been made more apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“By improving our understanding of WEF interactions and how they relate to Indigenous livelihoods, we may be in a better position to increase resiliency within the water, energy and food systems and respond more effectively to future shocks like Covid-19,” said David Natcher, professor at the University of Saskatchewan and project lead for the SDWG’s WEF nexus study.


Ultimately, the project will produce new insights and address knowledge and data gaps to support the SDWG’s efforts to meet the SDG targets in the Arctic. With the participation of the Arctic Council Indigenous Permanent Participants, this research represents a unique opportunity to respond to the United Nations’ call to locate the rights and interests of Indigenous peoples to the center of the SDG agenda.

“By examining the synergies between WEF systems and their influence on the livelihoods of Arctic peoples, we will create innovative pathways for the co-production of knowledge, novel technologies and predictive capabilities informed by both western and Indigenous Knowledge systems,” said David Natcher.

Information collected through this research will be added to an online Decision Support Tool that will combine WEF and livelihood data in ways that can be easily interpreted by decision-makers. A new online WEF nexus course will also be developed through the University of the Arctic. The course will facilitate community responses to WEF related challenges and will be tailored to undergraduate students, government and industry professionals who work in WEF related areas. The project will culminate in an international conference – Nexus Thinking in the Arctic, with keynote presentations made by international experts from in and outside the Arctic.

“This research project is ambitious,” said Stefán Skjaldarson. “However, the current opportunities and challenges experienced in WEF systems in the Arctic – and the implications for Arctic peoples – demand our ambitious efforts.”


7 Native American Inventions That Revolutionized Medicine And Public Health

November is National American Indian Heritage Month, a time of recognition for the substantial contributions the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the U.S. But, the month and remembrance, like many Native influences, still frequently go unrecognized in our day-to-day lives. Whether it’s the invention of vital infrastructure such as cable suspension bridges or sport for fun like lacrosse, so much of what exists in modern culture today is a direct result of what was created before newcomers occupied these lands.

And the world’s health ecosystem, ranging from preventative measures to administration of medicine is no different, owing much of its practices and innovations to those ancestral peoples and healers.

Here are seven inventions used every day in medicine and public health that we owe to Native Americans. And in most cases, couldn’t live without today:

1. Syringes

In 1853 a Scottish doctor named Alexander Wood was credited for the creation of the first hypodermic syringe, but a much earlier tool existed. Before colonization, Indigenous peoples had created a method using a sharpened hollowed-out bird bone connected to an animal bladder that could hold and inject fluids into the body. These earliest syringes were used to do everything from inject medicine to irrigate wounds. There are also cases in which these tools were even used to clean ears and serve as enemas.     

2. Pain Relievers

Native American healers led the way in pain relief. For example, willow bark (the bark of a tree) is widely known to have been ingested as an anti-inflammatory and pain reliever. In fact, it contains a chemical called salicin, which is a confirmed anti-inflammatory that when consumed generates salicylic acid – the active ingredient in modern-day aspirin tablets. In addition to many ingestible pain relievers, topical ointments were also frequently used for wounds, cuts and bruises. Two well-documented pain relievers include capsaicin (a chemical still referenced today that is derived from peppers) and jimson weed as a topical analgesic.

3. Oral Birth Control

Oral birth control was introduced to the United States in the 1960’s as a means of preventing pregnancy. But something with a similar purpose existed in indigenous cultures long before. Plant-based practices such as ingesting herbs dogbane and stoneseed were used for at least two centuries earlier than western pharmaceuticals to prevent unwanted pregnancy. And while they are not as effective as current oral contraception, there are studies suggesting stoneseed in particular has contraceptive properties.

4. Sun Screen

North American Indians have medicinal purposes for more than 2,500 plant species – and that is just what’s currently known between existing practices. But, for hundreds of years many Native cultures had a common skin application that involved mixing ground plants with water to create products that protected skin from the sun. Sunflower oil, wallflower and sap from aloe plants have all been recorded for their use in protecting the skin from the sun. There are also noted instances of using animal fat and oils from fish as sunscreen. 

5. Baby Bottles 

It wouldn’t be considered sanitary – or safe – by today’s standards, but long before settlers made their way to American lands, the Iroquois, Seneca and others created bottles to aid in feeding infants. The invention consisted of the insides of a bear and a bird’s quill. After cleaning, drying and oiling bear intestines, a hollowed quill would be attached as a teat, allowing concoctions of pounded nuts, meat and water to be suckled by infants for nutrition.     

6. Mouth Wash & Oral Hygiene

Although tribes across the continent used various plants and methods for cleaning teeth, it is rumored that people on the American continent had more effective dental practices than the Europeans who arrived. In particular areas, mouthwash was known to be made from a plant called goldthread to clean out the mouth. It was also used by many Native cultures as pain relief for teething infants or a tooth infection by rubbing it directly onto the gums.

7. Suppositories

Hemorrhoids are nothing new. Nor is the pain and discomfort associated with having hemorrhoids. But before modern-day solutions and dietary changes, Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas created suppositories from dogwood trees. Dogwood is still used today (although not often) externally for wounds. But hundreds of years ago small plugs were fashioned by moistening, compressing and inserting the dogwood to treat hemorrhoids.

It’s easy to go about our day-to-day lives without thinking about the role that public health and medicine play in keeping us safe and healthy. But it’s even easier to take those things for granted without recognizing the brilliant innovations and inventors that got us where we are today. In some instances, we have sanitized, improved upon and perfected our modern-day practices. But in other instances, we are not much further than our ancestors were. Those healers who knew how to use the land and its resources to produce effective methods and substances for ailments. 

As technology moves us ever forward, let’s not forget that as we grow into the future, we are still rooted in history.


After 250 years, Native American tribe regains ownership of Big Sur ancestral lands

A northern California Indian tribe’s sacred land is now back under their ownership, thanks to the help of a conservancy group.The Esselen Tribe, one of the state’s smallest and least well known tribes, inhabited the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Big Sur coast for thousands of years, according to their website. Nearly 250 years ago, their land was taken from then by Spanish explorers, according to the tribe’s history. The tribe remained landless until Monday.

The Esselen Tribe of Monterey County (ETMC) closed escrow on a $4.5 million deal with Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC), an environmental group, to purchase nearly 1,200 acres in Big Sur. The WRC acquires land with the purpose of finding a long-term steward that will conserve the natural habitat. In October the group announced it helped the tribe to be rewarded a grant through the California Natural Resources Agency that covered the purchase of the land.”It is with great honor that our tribe has been called by our Ancestors to become stewards of these sacred indigenous lands once again,” Tom Little Bear Nason, Tribal Chairman of the ETMC, said in a statement in October.”These lands are home to many ancient villages of our people, and directly across the Little Sur River sits Pico Blanco or ‘Pitchi’, which is the most sacred spot on the coast for the Esselen People and the center of our origin story.”

Future of the land

The land, which was known as the Adler Ranch, first came to the attention of WRC in 2015 when the long time owners had being trying to sell the property for years, Sue Doroff, president of WRC, told CNN on Wednesday.

A view of the redwoods on the property.
A view of the redwoods on the property.
Doug Steakley/Western Rivers Conservancy

The area piqued the conservation group’s interest because it is known for its giant redwoods, an ideal nesting place for one of the largest flying birds in the world, the California condor.”The old-growth redwoods on this property are genetically adaptive to the warmer dry climate of Big Sur,” Doroff said. “These trees will be important for the future effort to assist in redwood survival.”The Little Sur River runs along one side of the property with a tributary jutting onto the land, which is a spawning ground for the South-Central California Coast Steelhead, said the WRC. Both these species are in dire need of conservation. The condor is listed as endangered and the steelhead as threaten on the Endangered Species Act.Both parties agreed that the land will not be commercially developed on and that conservation efforts will continue, according to Doroff.”We are proud of our involvement here and conserving this landscape,” Doroff said. “We are honored to be a part of rebuilding the Esselen Tribe.”In addition to conservation efforts, the ETMC plans on building a village that other indigenous tribes in the area can utilize. They are also planning to host public educational events to teach others about their culture, according to Doroff.”We are going to conserve it and pass it on to our children and grandchildren and beyond,” Nason told The Mercury News. “Getting this land back gives privacy to do our ceremonies. It gives us space and the ability to continue our culture without further interruption.”


Russia: Amendments to ‘Foreign Agents’ Law – A Death Sentence for Civil Society

Civil Rights Defenders expresses grave concern over proposed package of draft laws to Russian legislation regulating association. The amendments could mean a death sentence for unregistered initiatives and independent non-governmental organisations.

In November 2020, the Russian government proposed amendments to broaden its notorious 2012 ‘foreign agents’ legislation, which concerns domestic organisations and branches of foreign NGOs operating in Russia. The amendments will 1) increase the burden on organisations as well as the government’s control over their operations; 2) increase the risk for individual activists; and 3) contravene Russia’s constitution and its international obligations to ensure freedom of association.

More Bureaucratic Burdens for NGOs 

One of the new amendments dictate that NGOs labelled as ‘foreign agents’ will be required to provide the Ministry of Justice with information on their programmes and the implementation thereof, including their activities, public events, and finances, in advance and on an annual basis. The Ministry of Justice will in turn decide whether an organisation can implement its planned programmes. If the Ministry prohibits implementation, the NGO must comply, or be forced to close by court order.

In addition, unregistered associations or initiative groups can be labelled ‘foreign agents’ and would then be required to report activities and finances for government approval. Therefore, Russian authorities will have even more control to prevent groups, such as the independent monitoring association GOLOS, from implementing their activities, including observation missions of the parliamentary elections slated for 2021.

According to Russian civil society representatives, the language in the amendment is not specific as to how the Ministry will make such determinations over NGO activities. For example, an organisation working on political prisoners’ support might be forced to stop this activity because the state asserts that there are no political prisoners in the country.

Human Rights Defenders at Greater Personal Risk 

The amendments will increase the personal risks on Russian human rights defenders and civil society activists by establishing an ‘individuals serving as foreign agents list.’ The list will contain personal data – the scope of which is unclear in the law – and be publicly available. The bill proposes that individuals, regardless of their citizenship, can be recognised as ‘foreign agents’ if they engage in political activities and receive money, an asset, or ‘organisational and methodological help’ from foreign sources.

As such, individuals will be required to report their ‘political activity’ and how they spend their foreign funds to the Ministry of Justice every six months. In the case of a ‘foreign agent’ organisation whose employees retain a salary from foreign funds, the employees must report their financials. Such demands constitute a violation of the right to privacy.

Additionally, the amendments expand the already controversial concept of ‘foreign source’, which has been used to recognise an entity or individual as a ‘foreign agent’. The amendments include not only foreign governments, citizens, or organisations but also Russian citizens and organisations that have an affiliation with a foreign citizen or stateless person. The only safeguard to avoid the label and consequences of ‘foreign agent’ in the country will be to accept state funds exclusively.

Independent Expert: Amendments Are Unconstitutional 

According to Maxim Krupsky, an independent legal expert, who analysed the legislation, the proposed bills are unconstitutional and violate the principle of legal certainty i.e. demands of the law must be clear enough for adherence and implementation, as understood by the Russian Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights.

The terms used in the bills are vague and have no legal determination, meaning the provisions could be applied arbitrarily, unjustly, and unreasonably. And organisations required to meet the demands of the new legal provisions will have no legal remedy to dispute a decision by the Ministry of Justice.

According to the legal expertise of the draft bill, the proposed legislation is ‘excessively repressive and provides unreasonably broad discretion to enforcement institutions <…> which may lead to the gross violations of (association and individual) rights as well as the balance of public and private interests’ (Krupsky, M. The independent anti-corruption expertise on the Bill ‘On taking additional measures to counter threats to national security,’ p. 30.)

Given the threat to civil and political liberties, Civil Rights Defenders calls on the State Duma of the Russian Federation to retract these amendments to the ’foreign agent’ legislation. These further restrictions under Russia’s foreign agent law are detrimental to freedom of association and to civil society, which is a key component of a functioning democracy. Guarantees of such freedoms are the core part of Russia’s international commitments on human rights.


Commissioner for Human Rights calls on the State Duma to refrain from adopting legislation which violates the rights of NGOs and civil society activists

“I have been following closely recent discussions concerning a number of new bills related to NGOs and, in particular, I note that Russian civil society has expressed criticism of these bills. Based on all the information received, I call on the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation to reject a number of pending bills that would make the already very restrictive legislation on NGOs even more limiting, undermining civil society and restricting freedoms of association, assembly and expression. I recommend that the lawmakers conduct a thorough review of the current legislation on NGOs in consultation with all relevant international and national human rights stakeholders, including Russian civil society and national human rights structures, to align it with European and international human rights standards”, said the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, in a statement today.

Bill no. 1052523-7, as tabled by the Government, would allow the Ministry of Justice to interfere with the statutory activities of both NGOs that receive foreign funding and international or foreign NGOs (INGOs) operating in Russia. In particular, the bill provides that the NGOs concerned would have to communicate information in advance and report about their planned projects and events to the Ministry of Justice, while the latter would have discretionary power to approve or ban those activities. The bill does not provide any guidance as to what actions could be prohibited and on what grounds. Failure to comply with such a ban would lead to the liquidation of the NGO concerned.

European human rights standards on the legal status of NGOs provide that they should be free to pursue their objectives through a wide range of activities, including research, education and advocacy, and in doing so, they should not be subject to direction by public authorities. According to the well-established case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, granting the executive legal discretion expressed in terms of unfettered power in matters affecting fundamental rights would be contrary to the rule of law which is one of the basic principles of a democratic society. Furthermore, the dissolution of an NGO can only be applied for serious misconduct and as a last resort, when all less restrictive options have been unsuccessful. When it comes to the imposition of sanctions, it appears that the draft law in question fails to meet the requirements of proportionality and necessity, as the dissolution of the NGO concerned is proposed as the only and immediate sanction to be initiated by the Ministry of Justice.

Another worrying legislative proposal that has been made is to extend the scope of the activities that NGOs receiving foreign funding are currently prohibited from engaging in. In addition to the existing ban on taking part in public monitoring commissions, public consultations on draft laws, or observation of elections, Bill no. 1057230-7, would prohibit such NGOs from providing financial or material support for public events. Such a blanket and discriminatory ban would significantly affect the freedom of assembly and expression of the civil society groups concerned in contradiction with the guarantees provided by the Russian Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. Furthermore, Bill no. 1057914-7 provides that NGOs receiving foreign funding would be excluded from the public consultations that various ministries hold with civil society on a regular basis. The bill does not provide any reasons for stripping these NGOs of their legitimate right to effective participation without discrimination in public decision making. It is also crucial to reiterate the well-recognised right of any NGO to solicit and receive funding not only from public bodies in their own state but also from institutional or individual donors, another state or multilateral agencies. If adopted, such new provisions would only add to the discriminatory treatment of such NGOs under current legislation.

Lastly, I am dismayed by the persistent and increasing spread in recent years in Russia of stigmatisation and harassment of civil society and human rights defenders. This time, Bill no. 1057914-7 provides for this stigmatising label to be applied to unregistered associations and even individuals who receive foreign funding or support and are engaged in activities, which are the most basic and natural forms of the work of civil society. The same bill also extends the requirement to affix stigmatising labelling on any publication or materials disseminated in the mass media or addressed to the state authorities (or the public at large) to include not only such groups themselves but also individuals who are affiliated to them, including staff members. Another problematic proposal that has been made is to deprive the individuals concerned of access to public state and municipal service functions.

As various institutions have already established, the use of stigmatising labels leads to discrimination against the persons concerned and intensifies the chilling effect on their legitimate activities and freedom of speech. The Venice Commission has also criticised the use of such labelling because it means that other people, particularly representatives of state institutions, are very likely to be reluctant to co-operate with those to whom it is applied. All such provisions would contribute to a discriminatory restriction on the legitimate right of the persons concerned to participate in public life and decision making.

All the recently proposed legislative amendments referred to above fall short of the applicable human rights standards on freedom of expression, assembly and association enshrined in the European Convention and might serve as a tool for the further silencing of any form of legitimate criticism of the state authorities from civil society. There is an urgent need for the Russian authorities to change course and to start upholding their human rights obligations by supporting civil society and creating an enabling environment for their legitimate activities.”


Rivers for Recovery: Protecting Rivers and Rights Essential for a Just and Green Recovery

On the 20th Anniversary of the landmark World Commission on Dams Report, a new report from International Rivers and Rivers without Boundaries charts an alternative course for post-pandemic energy development than the revitalization of a failing hydropower industry. As Rivers for Recoverydetails, despite the rhetoric of the hydropower industry, the industry’s global flagship projects continue to prove poor investments. This in addition to destroying critical ecosystems and biodiversity, while devastating local populations, human rights, and food security.

For years, the installation of new hydropower facilities has steadily declined as renewables have rapidly increased. This is a result of a confluence of factors including the growing cost-efficacy of alternatives (especially solar and wind), the lengthy timelines and burdensome costs (social, environmental, and economic) of large dams, a worsening climate crisis, technological innovations in energy efficiency, storage, and transmission, and a growing global movement to keep or return rivers to their natural state. Indeed Cambodia recently announced a 10-year moratorium on Mekong mainstream dams and U.S. governors announced the world’s largest dam removal project will proceed.

Yet, the International Hydropower Association (IHA), far from shifting course, is urging its members to “have shovel-ready projects in place for the post-Covid 19 economic stimulus plans.” In other words, the hydropower industry is seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to profit from recovery funds that would be much better spent elsewhere, including upgrading and improving the efficiency of existing dams.

Video produced by Todd Southgate. Also available in  FrenchSpanish, & Portuguese


“The hydro industry is in the business of self-preservation. But humanity’s self-preservation needs to prevail,” said Darryl Knudsen, executive director of International Rivers. “Given the track record and problems inherent in large-scale hydropower, we should be rushing toward alternatives, not channeling money into false solutions.” The report’s survey of major projects that came online immediately prior to the pandemic includes:

Dujiangyan community members celebrating the demolition of the Shengxing power station. The banner reads “We will protect you forever, Dujiangyan World Heritage Site!” | Photo by Peng Wei.

The Belo Monte Dam in the Brazilian Amazon.

The project had a pricetag of $10 billion, was fraught with corruption scandals, devastated Indigenous territories and way of life, displaced thousands of families, and harmed critical biodiversity in the globally sensitive Amazon rainforest. What’s more, the project will only deliver a fraction of the 11 gigawatt (GW) capacity it promised. Yet the IHA heralds it as a major success.

The Wunonglong and Dahuqiao Dams in China.

These recent additions to the series of dams on the Lancang, or Upper Mekong River, in addition to the new Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams in Laos, have contributed to an unfolding ecological disaster downstream in the Lower Mekong Basin that threatens the world’s largest freshwater fishery and the collapse of the region’s “food bowl.”

The Genale Dawa III Dam in Ethiopia.

Finally commissioned after nine years of construction, the dam will restrict flows in such a way that Somalia’s agricultural production and food security could be seriously impaired.

“We have the opportunity for a reset in how we relate to and manage natural resources while developing energy solutions that genuinely address the climate crisis and build economies. It’s critically important we take the opportunity, lest we sink deeper into climate crisis and further accelerate the mass extinction of species.”

– Eugene Simonov, coordinator of Rivers without Boundaries


Dary, a young woman leader in community fisheries
in Kratie province, Cambodiab. | Photo by Savann Oeurm, Oxfam

Rivers for Recovery provides an indicative list of destructive projects that are yet in the pipeline but could be stopped with forward-thinking on cheaper, cleaner options by governments; a chance to avoid crippling new debt in the post-pandemic recession. It also provides a detailed roadmap that not only calls for a moratorium on new dams in the economic recovery, but investments in alternatives and increasing efficiency of current dams, and commitments to protect critical biodiversity and the world’s remaining, free-flowing rivers.

What’s more, the report’s findings affirm much of what the World Commission on Dams laid out twenty years ago. The Commission, a multi-stakeholder group from civil society, the private sector, academia, and beyond, examined the environmental, social, and economic impacts of large dams around the globe. And their final report, Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision–Making, released in November 2000 under the patronage of Nelson Mandela, provided a comprehensive framework for alleviating the competing pressures on our scarce freshwater resources. Globally, rivers and the communities that depend on them remain threatened. And the fight against destructive, expensive, unprofitable dams continues. The Commission’s recommendations remain an important foundation for further innovations as we seek to rebuild economies from the pandemic.


Conservation International’s star-studded advertising campaign remembers to save the rainforests, but forgets Indigenous Peoples

Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey, Edward Norton, Penélope Cruz, Robert Redford, Ian Somerhalder. These are the big names that Conservation International has recruited for its new advertising campaign.

It’s called Nature is Speaking, and the celebrities play the role of nature: Harrison Ford is the Ocean; Edward Norton is the Soil; Penélope Cruz is Water.

“The environmental movement has missed the mark with our impenetrable language,” Peter Seligmann, chairman and CEO of Conservation International, told Fortune magazine.

So Seligman got marketing guru Lee Clow to work on Conservation International’s advertising campaign. Clow was one of the people behind Apple’s 1984 commercial and the “Think Different” slogan.

The fact that Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow, is on the board of Conservation International no doubt helped persuade Clow to get involved.

Here’s Kevin Spacey playing The Rainforest:

I am the rainforest. I watched them grow up here. They’ve left. But they always come back. Yes they always come back. For my trees. Their wood. My plants. Their medicines. For my beauty. Their escape.
I’ve always been there for them and I have been more than generous. Sometimes I gave it all to them. Now gone, forever.
But humans, they’re so smart, so smart. Such big brains. And opposable thumbs. They know how to make things. Amazing things.
Now why would they need an old forest like me any more? Jungles? Trees?
Well, they do breathe air. And I make air. Have they thought about that?
Humans. So smart. They’ll figure it out.
Humans making air. That’ll be fun to watch.

The campaign is aimed at convincing us that humans depend on nature. The photography is beautiful. The voices are great. And every time someone uses the hashtag #NatureIsSpeaking on Twitter and other social media, Hewlett-Packard donates US$1 to Conservation International (up to US$1 million).

But there’s a serious problem.

The rainforests in Conservation International’s advertising campaign are beautiful, but they are empty. Conservation International forgot to mention the people who live in the rainforest.

A recent report by World Resources Institute and the Rights and Resources Initiative found that recognising and protecting Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ rights to their land and forests are crucial for protecting forests.

The deforestation rate in community-managed forests in the Brazilian Amazon is 11 times lower than in forests outside those areas. More carbon is stored in community forests.

As Rights and Resources Initiative points out,

By arguing that nature doesn’t need people, Conservation International unwittingly discredits the millions of Indigenous Peoples who have acted as effective and responsible stewards of their land for centuries. This kind of thinking has had devastating real-world ramifications, with untold millions of local communities suffering from forced relocation over the past century of “conservation” – a pattern that continues all too often today.


Denmark set to end all new oil and gas exploration

Denmark will end all new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, as part of a wider plan to stop extracting fossil fuels by 2050.

Its government also agreed to cancel its latest licensing round on Thursday, which gives firms permission to search for and produce oil and gas.

“We are now putting a final end to the fossil era,” said Denmark’s climate minister.

Greenpeace Denmark described the announcement as a “watershed moment”.

However, the country’s latest licensing round was facing uncertainty, after Total of France pulled out in October, leaving only one other applicant.

Denmark is currently the largest oil producer in the European Union, although it produces much less than non-EU members Norway or the UK.

It pumped 103,000 barrels a day in 2019, according to analysis by UK oil giant BP

There are 55 drilling platforms on its territory, across 20 oil and gas fields.

“We’re the European Union’s biggest oil producer and this decision will therefore resonate around the world,” Danish climate minister Dan Jorgensen said on Thursday.

The decision will cost Denmark about 13 billion kroner (£1.1bn), according estimates by the energy ministry, though it said this amount was subject to substantial uncertainty.

Presentational grey line

A historic milestone

By Adrienne Murray, Denmark

This move marks a historic milestone. No other sizeable oil producer has taken such a step, Dan Jorgensen tells the BBC.

Denmark has been positioning itself as a frontrunner fighting climate change, but its oil production had presented a dilemma.

Since the 1970s, Denmark has earned billions of dollars from its North Sea oil. That’s also helped finance the country’s generous welfare state.

“We want to be climate neutral in 2050. And if we are to have any credibility in that, then this is a necessary decision,” says Mr Jorgensen.

When the current government came to power, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called it “the first climate election”.

But recently it has faced criticism for not taking more ambitious steps to reach its climate goal. This latest decision now sends a stronger message.

Economic factors have played a role. Lower oil prices and higher costs have seen interest wane in the latest round of oil bloc tenders.

Even so, about 4,000 jobs depend on the sector – mostly on Denmark’s west coast.

As part of the new plan, Mr Jorgensen says carbon capture and storage technology will be developed in the area, and new job creation will come from the country’s growing off-shore wind sector.

Presentational grey line

‘Green frontrunner’

Denmark is regarded as having one of the world’s most ambitious climate targets.

It aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 70% by 2030, as well as reach net zero emissions by 2050 – both targets which have been passed into law.

Workers on a Danish oil rig

Helene Hagel, head of climate and environmental policy at Greenpeace Denmark, said that the new announcement meant “the country can assert itself as a green frontrunner and inspire other countries to end our dependence on climate-wrecking fossil fuels.

“This is a huge victory for the climate movement and all the people who have pushed for many years to make it happen.”

Governments around the world have also committed to take further action on climate change as part of a wider plan to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The UK will aim to cut its carbon emissions by at least 68% of what they were in 1990 by the end of 2030, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Friday.

Scientists have said, however, that even if the UK and other nations keep their promises on cutting emissions there was no guarantee the world would avoid serious global warming.


Indigenizing Philanthropy: Shifting Grantmaking Practices from Extractive to Reciprocal

By Galina Angarova and Daisee Francour

The Indigenizing Philanthropy Series is a five-part article series accompanied with a webinar and toolkit to provide a framework in how to transform and Indigenize philanthropy. Co-authored by Cultural Survival staff Galina Angarova (Buryat) and Daisee Francour (Oneida), both authors have unique experiences as Indigenous women who have worked both in philanthropy as program officers for private foundations and as fundraisers for NGOs. Angarova and Francour, Indigenous women from the United States and Russia (Siberia), offer their dynamic expertise and shed an important light on how philanthropy can take a serious, introspective look at its colonial roots and take authentic actions to remedy its future in a way that is aligned with natural law and responsible ways of being and knowing. 

Check out these other articles in the Indigenizing Philanthropy Series: (1) Indigenizing Philanthropy and (2) Reimagining Philanthropy: Towards Relationships, Trust, Abundance, and Radical Love

Life is not a linear process, but rather an everlasting loop of birth, life, death, and rebirth. The circle of life shows up in the physical and metaphysical world, in our soils, on the highest mountain tops and in the deepest oceans. As Indigenous Peoples, we know this to be true because it is reflected in our creation stories, songs, prayers and cosmovisions. We see the circle of life for philanthropy nearing the end and putting to rest old practices that no longer serve the collective. Philanthropy’s rebirth is coming, and it is time for new practices of reciprocity, responsibility, respect and relationships under Indigenous leadership will lead the way. While there are some great movers and shakers that are working to address the injustices in the field, philanthropy as a whole must take a bold and honest look at itself, face its ugly truths and colonial roots, and follow the leadership of Indigenous Peoples, and specifically Indigenous women to move forward in a more equitable and balanced way. This third article in Cultural Survival’s Indigenizing Philanthropy Series, examines how philanthropy can shift its charitable giving and grantmaking practices from extractive to reciprocal ways of being and knowing. 

For many, philanthropy in its modern form, has become a major industry and a tax haven for the rich — allowing the wealthy to further protect and hoard their resources. During World War I, the United States amended the constitution and its federal tax code to allow for charitable, tax deducting contributions to finance the war. Businesses took advantage of these changes postwar to protect their assets and profits from federal taxes. Moreover, most mainstream philanthropy today is tied to the stock market, and when the economy plummets, so does planned annual giving. But what needs to be understood is that philanthropy has deeper roots than how it is presented today. Philanthropy — the act of giving out of abundance to promote the welfare and quality of life for others — is a practice that Indigenous Peoples have carried out  since time immemorial. While the U.S. and other global economies are based on capitalism, extraction, exploitation, and appropriation, Indigenous economies are based on gifting and reciprocity, which in turn maintains balance between Peoples, across ecosystems and in the natural world at large. Philanthropy has a unique position and responsibility right now to respond to and align itself with transformational, societal shifts that are taking place across the globe and rightfully align with social, racial, economic, and climate justice movements. 

Capitalism and colonization shows up in philanthropy in more ways that we would like to admit. From top-down, bureaucratic and hierarchical decision-making that lacks true perspective and experience in leadership that is reflected in the communities served, to annual giving that is determined in advance and aligned with the money market, to operating in silos and understanding social issues as linear… the list goes on and on. Colonization and capitalism remain the founding pillars of modern philanthropy and are reinforced by the wealthy individuals, families, and corporations that develop and manage philanthropic institutions like foundations. Recognizing that all colonial currencies and the abundance of wealth that exists in this world today are tied to capitalism with direct historical roots to the theft of Indigenous lands, displacement of Indigenous Peoples and forced, free labor of Black people. Even newer tech companies that date only a few decades back or less, too, can trace the money that seeded their work to the origin of stolen land and forced, free labor. Philanthropy needs to acknowledge this painful history and let its origin of wealth guide it towards transformation.

In response to the various social and racial justice movements across the globe, philanthropy and other fields have coined the term “decolonize” into a hot buzzword, making it trendy and desirable. But what does decolonize really mean? 

 “Decolonization is the process of deconstructing colonial ideologies of the superiority and privilege of Western thought and approaches. On the one hand, decolonization involves dismantling structures that perpetuate the status quo and addressing unbalanced power dynamics” (Cull et al, 2018).

What should be understood is that decolonizing and Indigenizing a system are not synonymous, but are both important, complementary processes. Decolonizing focuses on unwiring colonial, extractive, and exploitative attributes that interfere with equity, justice, and balance in relationships and our environments. Indigenizing replaces, or rather returns us to our original ways of being and knowing, which supports reciprocal relationships between peoples and place. This unwiring (decolonization) and re-wiring (Indigenization) is a process that is reflected in our neuropaths in the brain and the transition from one to the next takes time, practice and patience to achieve this transformation.   

So how does philanthropy move toward transformation? To answer that, philanthropy must identify how colonialism shows up in the field, its institutions and practices. First, philanthropy must normalize introspective and honest conversations about its colonial roots and extractive practices, and boldly acknowledge and denounce the harm it has caused in BIPOC communities. These actions are not simply a one-time task or a checked box, but it is an ongoing act of recognition and admission that builds better practices and eventually shifts organization culture, practices, and outcomes. Moreover, to build better practices and shift organizational culture, there must also be a shift in values, which serves as the north star and guide for how philanthropic institutions fulfills its mission. Developed by International Funders for Indigenous Peoples, foundations should consider adopting the four R’s of Indigenous Philanthropy: Respect, Reciprocity, Responsibility and Relationships. To normalize these values and put them into practice, other actions need to accompany this shift.

Transformative Leadership, Balanced Decision-Making, and Perpetual Learning

As we know, there is a huge disconnect between those who make decisions on funding and those who receive funding. Generally, those in decision-making power have comfortable salaries and their livelihood is mostly unthreatened by the decisions they make. However, for those who are receiving funding, oftentimes their livelihoods is in the hands of funders themselves — job security, income, resources to do the work for community organizations and organizers are often determined by foundations, and largely by the handful of individuals who hold most of the decision making power in the organization. Very few decision-making holders represent and reflect the communities they serve. To work towards transformation, foundations must exponentially increase BIPOC, and specifically Indigenous representation and leadership across staff, senior management, in their Board, and as consultants and advisors. For example, this means non-BIPOC staff, senior management, and Board members who have held long tenure at the organization consider re-defining their relationship to create space for new leadership and ideas. This shift doesn’t mean that their time and contributions weren’t honorable or important, but rather these actions are a catalytic act to enable the organization to transition and move towards transformation. This is where individuals themselves can support the rebirth and renewal of philanthropy directly in their organizations.   

Furthermore, the process of decision making and organizational governance must also shift from vertical to horizontal, and practice equity amongst staff and between the Board and staff too. A top down approach to decision making reinforces colonial and extractive organizational culture, further widening the gap between those on the frontlines receiving funding and those determining not only their futures, but in large part, the movement itself. To bridge this gap, decision-making itself should be held with Indigenous knowledge holders and community leaders, and engage the communities served throughout the decision-making process. 

In addition to shifting decision-making and the diversity of staff and Board to be more equitable and representative of the communities served, foundations must also prioritize learning as a perpetual act. While on paper, many foundations claim to always be learning and attempt to reflect this in their grantmaking through the questions they ask grantees and the data they gather, yet this data collection has proven to be very harmful to many BIPOC organizations and communities. Data collection and the grantmaking process itself should be designed in collaboration and consultation with the communities served, and each question asked should not only directly contribute to the decision-making process, but mutually serve all parties. Data collection and learning should expand beyond digital grant applications and reports, to include other forms of information sharing. Self-determination should be honored and upheld in grant applications and reporting, as grantees should determine what they want to share about their work, visions and strategies to fulfill their mission. Oftentimes, foundations ask questions and collect data, and the information that sits in a database goes unused or underutilized; foundations become hoarders of data and stays housed internally. Moreover, there should be an increase in external information sharing and learning. This includes more peer to peer learning between funders and grantees, and amongst funders. Despite funders usually operating in silos, there needs to be more intentional sharing and cross-pollination, so that those learnings too, aren’t hoarded. Decolonizing learning includes decolonizing due diligence processes too, and so, the cross pollination of mutual learning should be equally shared across the organization. This includes bridging the gap between executive, program and grants management teams, so that all staff understand the objectives and shared goals of learning, and all staff can contribute. Learning requires humility, and we all experience learning curves in the process. But when we bridge communication and relationships, we are able to better understand and support each other.

Reciprocal Relationships

For Indigenous Peoples, we recognize that all things are related. Each living thing, human and non-human are interconnected and interdependent in the web of life. Our health and well-being are intrinsically tied to one another, to the land and our environments. Our original instructions outline our roles and responsibilities, to the land and each other. Our blood memories remind us to be in better relationship with our environments, and even when we stray from that balance, our ancestral memories pull us back into our reciprocal relationships. However, colonization has conditioned us to think and act as individuals and independently without consequence or accountability, further disconnecting us from each other and the natural world, and our inherent responsibilities to taking care of Mother Earth and all living things. To restore the harm colonization has caused, we must restore, redefine and transform our relationships, and this applies to philanthropy too. 

The unwritten rules and protocol of a relationship is defined at the beginning, and is embedded in the language exchanged between the parties, and for funders and grantees, this usually starts before contact. Grantseekers will review a funder’s website and quickly adjust their communication strategy because of the language used by funders to convey how they work, their understanding of the issues along with their strategies (often filled with restrictions) to fulfil their mission. When mission alignment is established (and sometimes stretched) between funders and grantseekers, the language used by funders creates a power imbalance, unreasonable expectations and violated self-determination.

Philanthropy must remember that life is all about relationships, and that includes their ability to fulfill their mission. Nothing happens outside of relationships, whether it’s between people or between them and their land and ancestors, all the magic happens when we truly start relating to each other with an open heart and trust. Collectively, we need to (re)learn the art of being in relationship to one another. How do we get to a place of “we”, and not just “I”? How do we go beyond individual gain and success to our collective prosperity? Community and the collective have always been some of the most important values for Indigenous Peoples. We as Indigenous Peoples have always understood that the health of an individual depends on the health of the collective, and this understanding should become foundational for transformative philanthropy. 

As philanthropy strives to address power imbalances in their relationships with their grantees, foundations need to treat their grantees as partners. Their partners not only help the foundation fulfill their mission, but deepens their understanding in how to fulfill their mission through a mutual learning journey. Working singularly is a part of the culture in the western world, and reinforces colonization in philanthropy. But to work in true partnership means addressing accessibility between the funder and grantee partner. Restoring relationships requires strengthening access between each other, and funders are generally inaccessible to grantees and grantseekers, often by design, further widening the imbalance in relationships, increasing power dynamics and reinforcing a transactional relationship. What many funders fail to understand is that their grantee partners and the work they do is a primary way funders fulfill their mission, and that funders too, are dependent on their grantees to fulfill their mission.  For funders who use donor-advised funds (DAFs), direct access to the funder is nearly impossible and is done so by design, further reinforcing the extractive and hoarded control and protection of resources. Funders must take a serious look at how their access, or rather inaccess is contributing to the harm of BIPOC organizations, and unnecessary labor required to meet the funders demands. Inaccess also takes form in certain requirements outlined in eligibility for grantseekers. Oftentimes, U.S. based foundations require grantseekers in the U.S. to obtain a 501(c)(3) charitable tax status, or a foreign equivalent for grantseekers outside the United States. Few funders allow grantseekers to be fiscally sponsored, or even be an unincorporated organization. This requirement serves as a major barrier for small, grassroots organizations and is actually a violation of their self-determination. Philanthropy needs to regularly assess and ask themselves if and how they are infringing on self-determination of their partners and the movements they support, and understand that the requirements they set are reinforcing colonization. 

Shifting from Giving to Gifting

For Indigenous Peoples, our economies are based on gifting and reciprocity. We do not take more than we need and we always give a gift in return, sometimes medicine, song, prayers, and more. Because modern philanthropy is interwoven into capitalism, extractive transactions have disrupted the true purpose of philanthropy — the act of giving out of abundance to promote the welfare and quality of life for others. For example, philanthropy may use the term “gift”, oftentimes synonymous with “grant”, yet requires reporting, and rigorous reporting at that, to prove the money was spent accordingly. So, is this really a gift then? A gift economy means living in a state of abundance and that sharing excess, ensures balance in the natural world and equity amongst people. But how do we bring abundance to a field that is inherently scarce? This requires a collective effort across the field to shift from scarcity to abundance, and be guided by Indigenous Peoples, the originators of the gifting economy. This means getting rid of applications and rigorous due diligence processes that require a grantee to prove themselves over and over again, all while their legitimacy and leadership is continuously questioned even after the grant is awarded, evident in the reporting. Instead, philanthropy can continue to move toward building long-lasting and trusting relationships so extensive applications and rigorous due diligence processes are no longer necessary. Eradicating these extractive processes and replacing them with the opportunity to contribute to incredible things in our world while simultaneously fulfilling their mission is deeply honorable. Yet, colonization has conditioned us to compete with others and to be superior to our peers, our relatives, our equals. We need to remember that philanthropy is about the people, and we are more than a portfolio.

Philanthropy can move towards reciprocity and away from extractive practices through transformational leadership, balanced decision-making, perpetual learning, reciprocal relationships and operating from a place of abundance. But this is only the beginning, and  we, as Indigenous women, leaders, and experts in the field, invite you to join us in your journey of healing, decolonization, intentionality and transformation. Stay tuned for the next article, “Indigenizing Philanthropy: Rematriating the Distribution of Wealth” to be released Tuesday, December 8, 2020. Follow along for additional resources in the Indigenizing Philanthropy Series brought to you by Cultural Survival.