New Native-led grant program targets philanthropy inequity

A rendering of a billboard sign featuring a medical student.
A billboard featuring a Native American medical student will be installed this week in downtown Duluth. It's one of the projects funded by a new Northland Foundation grant program called Maada'ookiing, which gives small, "grassroots" grants to individual tribal members in northeastern Minnesota.
Courtesy Ivy Vainio

For more than 30 years, Frank Goodwin has helped Native people in Duluth recover from drug and alcohol addiction. He's led support groups and talking circles, and created men's and youth groups.

"I saw a need in our community,” he said. To “provide places for our people to heal."

Goodwin formed a nonprofit, but he doesn't get paid for a lot of the work he does.

For example, about eight years ago he began incorporating art into his work. He helps people express the trauma they've experienced through traditional art forms like "story sticks," where people use different colored yarn to tell their personal stories — the traumas, the disappointments, their family.

He also teaches them to make medicine bags and dream catchers, and to paint.

"And you can tell they're getting into it because they're quiet,” he said. “They're very quiet and they're really focused."

Goodwin is a member of the White Earth Nation, who comes from a long line of artists.

"Art is very therapeutic,” he said. “It's right in front of you, working with your hands. You're putting your thoughts, your emotion within what you're making, what you're creating."

But for years Goodwin has paid for all those art supplies out of his own pocket. He says he's gotten good at scouring online auctions.

But now he'll be getting some help.

His "Cultural Therapeutic Art and Wellness" project is one of 13 that received funding last week from the Duluth-based Northland Foundation. Other projects include funding for a billboard featuring an Indigenous medical student; money to create a digital library of Ojibwe elders' stories; and programs to teach young people traditional drumming and birchbark art.

The new initiative is called Maada'ookiing, which means "the distribution" in the Ojibwe language. It aims to make a small dent in a large inequity. Nationwide, less than 0.3 percent of philanthropy goes to Native American groups.

"This is about keeping our Indigenous culture alive and continuing, and people having increased access to cultural learning,” said LeAnn Littlewolf, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and a senior program officer for the foundation.

The program is unusual in that it awards grants to individuals, rather than formal nonprofit groups. Littlewolf calls them "grassroots" grants.

"It's in recognition that we have a lot of people who give on a regular basis,” she said. “And a lot of times they might have limited resources themselves, but they see a need in our community and they just pick up and they just start doing something."

The program reflects the traditional practice of "giveaways," Littlewolf said, that often take place at events like funerals or pow wows. She says the act of giving and sharing is recognized as something that lifts up the entire community.

Maada'ookiing is also unusual in the philanthropy world in another way. It was designed by, and is led by, Native people. A nine-member board made up of members of northeastern Minnesota's tribal nations decides which projects to fund.

"It is really important because they are from the Indigenous community, and there are cultural components that they understand,” Littlewolf said. “And so that comes through in making the decisions."

"We wanted the focus to be on Native people, what is it we want? How do we want to go about doing it?” explained board member Mary Harrelson, who’s a member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

“And we felt the best way to do that, was mostly to make a discrete and separate entity, where Native people can do it, figure it out on their own," she said.

The grants are for $2,500. The goal is to distribute $25,000 in funding every four months.

Harrelson said they also received many applications from entrepreneurs looking for funding to help start culturally relevant businesses. She said the foundation is exploring expanding to include another round of funding to support those ventures.

For Frank Goodwin, he acknowledged the $2,500 dollar grant isn’t huge, but he said it’s still a big help. Any anyway, he said, in the end it's not about how much money he gets.

"It's about the people that we serve. And if I get a lot of money or no money at all, we'll make sure that we help our people."

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