Diversity Essay: Native American culture and fundraising
The views expressed herein are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, or the organizations with which the authors are affiliated.
By Prudence S. Precourt, Ph.D., CFRE
AFP WI, Northeast Chapter
The Resource Paper that follows looks at the general history and culture of Native Americans in the United States. It examines how these factors relate to standard current fundraising practices. While there are a number of general commonalities between Native American cultures, there is also great diversity. To work successfully among any of these groups, fundraising practitioners would be well advised to seek the help of a well-respected person from the same community with which they wish to work. This is particularly important as not all those labeled Native American share the same culture nor do they share it to the same degree. To understand the present day, it is helpful to examine the historic and cultural setting briefly.
Before significant, long-term contact with European cultures, the people we refer to today as Native Americans were distributed from Alaska to the tip of South America. When we refer to them as "native," we are using terminology that expresses a belief that these people were the original inhabitants of what is now territory occupied by the United States of America. Most archeologists believe that, while they may be the first human inhabitants, their original homelands were not in the New World. However, not all Native Americans would agree with this interpretation.
Most archeologists think that all or most of the first human inhabitants of the New World came to what is today the United States by traveling across the Bering Straits, which at this time in prehistory formed a solid landmass between what are now referred to as Asia and Alaska. These peoples arrived earlier than the Europeans who eventually made contact with them. So, to these later arrivals they seemed "native." The terms "Native" and "American" both express a primarily European perspective. Columbus "discovered" Native Americans who already had been living in the Americas for thousands of years before his arrival. These groups referred to themselves by various names derived from their own languages. In many cases, these names translate as "the People." The term "American" would have had no meaning to them.
While there are some common themes shared by many traditional Native American cultures, there is also considerable diversity. There are estimates that thousands of mutually unintelligible languages were spoken in the Americas at the time of Columbus' first contact. There is no strong evidence that these languages were derived from any of those spoken in the Old World. Some of these people lived in large and complex societies. Others lived in small, relatively simple groups. Some lived settled lives in environments that provided reliable food and water sources all year long. Still others were more migratory following seasonally available resources within a geographic territory. There was no single integrated society in which all Native Americans participated. Rather, there were many different societies each with its own culture or shared beliefs, customs and behaviors. These New World societies shared more in common with each other than they did with European societies.
After Columbus, more Europeans arrived in larger numbers and with more sustained contact with the local peoples. Native societies had to find ways to deal with this often dramatic change. In response to European contact, some fled, others coexisted or mixed while still others took recourse in violent resistance. Some groups had different responses at different times. Uncontrollable factors, like disease, affected both the new arrivals as well as resident populations. As the new settlers spread into wider areas, the effects on native societies were often pronounced. Those native peoples living in areas thought less desirable by the new settlers were generally able to maintain their cultural integrity longer than those living near resources that were prized by the more recent arrivals. Some native peoples, particularly those living along the east coast, were forcibly removed to far less desirable lands. The effect of outside contact on different native groups varied as the new settlers also came from different cultures.
While the Native American societies that were in contact with the Europeans were altered by this contact, the society and culture of those making contact were also changed. Over time, a Native American cultural identity became more identifiable as more Native Americans began to work together to address their mutual needs as they were confronted by an overwhelming European based American society.
Today, Native Americans in general have different degrees of assimilation into the dominant American culture. There are those who have maintained close, daily participation in traditional society while others live completely removed from their historic roots. Other Native Americans live in both "worlds." The experience of being born and raised on a reservation with frequent contact with traditional culture is different from being raised in a cosmopolitan urban setting without contact with traditional culture. While individuals from both of these environments may be called "Native American," they may differ markedly in the degree of identity they may or may not have with this term and with traditional culture.
While being mindful of these important differences, there are some generalizations that can be made in describing more traditional aspects of Native American culture. While not all traditional Native American societies are male-centered, the majority is. Spirituality is generally a part of daily life, not something reserved for only one day of the week. The concept of individual ownership is not embraced. Cooperation and sharing among group members is highly prized. Older members of the group are respected and cared for as part of the family. "Family" generally includes more than mother, father and children. The traditional Native American family is "extended" in that it could include grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins as well.
Humility is respected. The expression of ones' thoughts in an indirect way is considered proper behavior. Traditionally, a high priority is placed on the maintenance of orderliness and balance within the social group as well as between the group and others. All elements of the natural world are also part of this balance. In this way, individuals within the group see themselves and others as part of the earth along with all the animals and certain natural phenomena like rain, stars, the moon and the sun, etc.
These values often stand in marked contrast to those of contemporary American culture. For example, rather than seeing animals as equal and important partners, American culture sees them as creatures that need to be dominated, exterminated or treated as pets. Elders are not always respected or cared for by the family. They are not sought out as sources of wise advice. They may be confined in a facility away from the family and cared for by strangers.
Unlike the American value for directness and decisions made by a single person, traditional Native American society seeks the wisdom of the group and avoids positions that could lead to confrontation or disagreement. These last behaviors could lead to disharmony between individuals or groups. The resulting lack of balance endangers everyone. Any behavior that could upset the desired balance should be avoided. To develop sensitivity to local expectations, it is very helpful to work with a volunteer from the community whom his or her peers respect and who can help you to understand how to "fit" into the culture.
Similarly, claiming public recognition for a major gift might be seen as not properly humble. It could upset the balance between individuals or groups. Sharing information about the net worth of prospects in a screening session, for example, could be seen as highly improper for both the person asking for this information as well as for the person offering it. This, too, would upset the harmony of relationships.
These are highly generalized characteristics of traditional Native American society. Not everyone who identifies himself or herself as Native American behaves this way or shares these values. This also does not mean that Native American people are uncharitable. On the contrary, sharing, cooperating and providing for others are highly desirable behaviors in traditional society. These are not always thought of as acts that are separately labeled "philanthropy." They are the norm for daily behavior.
There is no single way to describe all Native American behavior. If you were to ask a person who identifies as Native American what their religion is, they might answer Catholic. If you ask what music Native Americans like, the answer might be Garth Brooks, Leontyne Price or Kevin Locke. If you ask what times to avoid soliciting Native Americans, the answer might be April 15, income tax time. If you want to know what important dates are on the typical Native American calendar, the answer probably includes birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Christmas and New Year. It may or may not include Thanksgiving and Columbus Day. It might also include the appearance of the new moon. A successful fundraiser would want to be sensitive to the values of the people and communities in which they practice. Seeking the advice of individuals who are respected members of that community is an important key to learning how to work respectfully and successfully there.