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Shifting from Savior Complex to Indigenous-Led Solutions

Jun 18, 2015

Neva Morrison, Director of Grantmaking of Sacred Fire Foundation, in conversation with Rucha Chitnis

Neva Morrison

Neva Morrison, of Cherokee and Skokomish ancestry, joined Sacred Fire Foundation earlier this year as its director of grantmaking.  Neva’s role as an advocate for Indigenous peoples is deeply personal: She  co-founded First Peoples Worldwide and served as the managing director for nearly a decade, leading its Keepers of the Earth Fund, which was then the only global fund that was Indigenous led. During this time, Neva was instrumental in moving over $1.5 million to grassroots Indigenous communities around the world.
“We need strength-based grantmaking, which recognizes the internal strengths of Indigenous peoples and their inherent knowledge and wisdom,” she emphasizes.  This year, Neva has overseen Sacred Fire Foundation’s 2015 grant cycle, which received record applications from Indigenous-led groups around the world.  “We had over 50 grant applications.  It was revitalizing to read the applications, and it gave me faith to see all the incredible work that is happening around the world,” she says.

Last year, a Sacred Fire Foundation grant enabled the Gwich’in Steering Committee to host a youth leadership camp on environmental and cultural education to strengthen their Indigenous language and traditions.

“To me it is very important that the groups are Indigenous-led. There is an inherent belief in the philanthropic community that Indigenous peoples cannot come up with their own solutions.  This belief further reinforces colonial mindsets and a white savior agenda-based funding.”  Neva believes that her time spent in reservations, and meeting Indigenous communities, who were on the frontlines addressing  some of the most pressing issues, enabled her to understand the deep complexities of the problems and also witness the holistic solutions that were being implemented from the ground-up.
Reflecting on the grants received by Sacred Fire Foundation this year, Neva notes that a strong project proposal is one where you can see a stone thrown in the water, and see ripples of change moving through the community.  “Everything is tied together. It’s like a web, and there is history, present and the future.”
Neva believes that capacity building of Indigenous peoples’ groups is crucial for the long-term sustainability of their organizations and movements.  “Access to resources is a big piece. Indigenous groups have effective solutions. What they need is long-term resources and capacity building support.”  Neva also shares that it is important for funders to support networking between Indigenous groups, especially those that are in remote rural areas.  Neva says ultimately it boils down to taking the risk, having the faith and building trust-based relationships between funders and Indigenous groups.
“Many big funders don’t want to invest in infrastructure and capacity building. They want a bang for their buck, sexy projects with big outcomes on their metric sheets, when in reality the strongest work comes from capacity building of small groups so that they can access resources.”

Indigenous communities across the Americas innovated the corn, a vital food source, which has deep connection to their culture and spirituality.

Neva notes that it is important for the philanthropic community to preserve ancestral wisdom practices and systems, such as traditional knowledge, a vital repository of knowledge for sustainable foodways, climate change resiliency and biodiversity protection.  Neva believes that traditional knowledge helps us to draw upon the innate sustainability models of the past and build bridges between the ancient and the modern world.
“Elder wisdom comes from over a millennia of knowledge, as well as errors and mistakes. It’s been tweaked and strengthened through the times.  The only thing that is moving forward is that, which is powerful, that which has worked, and so it’s time tested.”