We are at our best when indigenous knowledge leads — Sahan Journal


By Venessa Fuentes, in partnership with Wakinyan LaPointe

Wakíŋyaŋ LaPointe has been in a new staff position at the Headwaters Foundation for Justice for months. As a Program Officer, Native Communities deeply rooted in the local Native American community, he directs the Sacred Circle Fund. The Fund is Headwaters’ oldest fund and one of several core Headwaters programs that use a community-led grantmaking model. Also known as crowdfunding, this model relies on the active and engaged participation of people who live closest to the challenges and opportunities of their community.

“Too often we see larger national foundations and Western philanthropy being run by trustees, boards, staff and program officers who are not from or familiar with a specific region” , says LaPointe. “Grantmaking in community foundations, when led by Indigenous peoples, offers a more grounded and relational model of philanthropy. In other words, Indigenous-led philanthropy means community-led philanthropy.

Wakinyan LaPointe (left) is Program Officer, Indigenous Communities and Venessa Fuentes (right) is Director of Networking and Storytelling at the Headwaters Foundation. Photo credit: Free Truth Media.

At Headwaters, Indigenous-led philanthropy means inviting Indigenous members of the community to be funders and decision-makers, both in the Sacred Circle Fund and in the rest of the Foundation’s grassroots programs.

LaPointe was inspired to join the staff at Headwaters, in part because of his lived experiences, both personal and professional. He is a Sicangu Lakota citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and has over a decade of cultural and relational networks throughout the region. As a familiar member of Indigenous-led community foundations, he understands the vital importance of centering local Indigenous knowledge when developing philanthropic efforts to support problem solving in local Indigenous communities.

“Historically, the act of giving has been central to the economic prosperity and self-determination of many Indigenous communities, which has given way to enduring intergenerational wealth,” shares LaPointe. “This was especially true for my people, the Lakota people, who continue to perform ceremonies of giving back to all life. In the Lakota language, Wopila is a ceremony among the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires Nations) of thanksgiving and to honor each other’s stories.

In March, LaPointe recruited a group of community members to lead the Sacred Circle Fund’s 2022 grantmaking process. In addition to being from various Indigenous nations, the grantmakers represented a diversity of professional backgrounds, including a communications coordinator, an artist, a nonprofit executive director, and alumni of the Giving Project cohort. Funders reviewed proposals and made investment decisions using the Fund’s criteria and a culturally steeped consensus-building model. In the end, they awarded a total of $760,000 in general operating funds to 19 Indigenous-led organizations across Mnisota. Each beneficiary received $40,000 ($20,000 per year for two years); Headwaters broke the news late last month.

Staff of the Native Governance Center, one of the Indigenous-led organizations receiving a grant from the Sacred Circle Fund. Photo credit: Native Conference Center.

When Indigenous-led organizations shared how Headwaters could better support them and their work, Headwaters responded. Melissa Rudnick, Director of Programs and Grantmaking, said, “We have heard the call for flexible, multi-year funding and we are honored to make these investments, guided by the wisdom, leadership and experience of funders from indigenous communities. »

A tradition of philanthropy with an Indigenous lens

The Sacred Circle Fund invests in Indigenous-led organizations committed to justice, self-determination, culture and sovereignty. Rudnick shares, “The Fund honors and recognizes Indigenous-led organizations that nurture vibrant, prosperous and just communities, both now and for future generations. General operating grants help organizations focus on work centered on culture, values ​​and ways of life; aboriginal leadership; links to land and language; sovereignty and self-determination; and deep community engagement. Flexible funding allows recipients to decide how to spend the funds.

Staff of the Lower Phalen Creek Project, one of the Indigenous-led organizations receiving a grant from the Sacred Circle Fund. Photo credit: Lower Phalen Creek Project.

Established over 20 years ago, the Fund continues to influence and inform the work taking place in all of the Headwaters. Moreover, the name of the Fund has an important cultural meaning and harbors many interpretations. LaPointe shares, “In the Lakota worldview, the cangleska wakan (sacred circle) represents the interconnectedness and inherent sacredness of all life. Everything we do has an impact on the cangleska wakan. Headwaters honors this value by recognizing that we can only strengthen cangleska wakan together, not using a top-down approach. Drawing on the wisdom of the indigenous community is a key part of how the Sacred Circle Fund works.

Staff of the Little Earth Residents Association, one of the Indigenous-led organizations receiving a grant from the Sacred Circle Fund. Photo credit: Little Earth Residents Association.

Today, Headwaters celebrates both the legacy and the future of Indigenous community members and movement organizations through the Sacred Circle Fund. In fact, Foundation employees say they know that $760,000 in scholarships is just the beginning.

Learn more about the Sacred Circle Fund, including its recipient organizations and 2022 grantmakers.

Author Biographies

Venessa Fuentes is Network and Storytelling Director at Headwaters. She is responsible for leading Foundation-wide storytelling and communications strategies that further amplify our mission and values. In addition to her professional role, Fuentes is an activist artist, cultural producer and obsessed with using the power of words to free herself.

Headwaters Program Officer, Wakíŋyaŋ Indigenous Communities LaPointe is a Sicangu Lakota citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. He is an Indigenous human rights advocate with the United Nations and a community cultural consultant. He will earn a Masters in Nonprofit Management from Hamline University and is an incoming Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. LaPointe is a Wicasha Olowan (Lakota singer) and Woyake Wichasa (Storyteller).


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