Longmont Nonprofit is a Growing Force for Native American Prosperity

December 12, 2018

Despite less than 400 Native Americans living in Longmont, the fight to dispel regressive notions about the community and bring about change is, at least partially, based out of a nondescript building at 2432 Main St. owned by the First Nations Development Institute.

Since having moved to Longmont in 2003, First Nations has become one of the four largest Indian-run nonprofits in the country. Along with the American Indian College Fund and the Native American Rights Fund, both of which are also are located in Boulder County, First Nations has helped spearhead a national effort to change the public narrative around Native Americans and raise awareness of the issues facing them with lobbying efforts, educational outreach and helping to fund studies.

Among those issues is poverty. The median income for Native Americans is roughly $18,000 less than the national average, and Native Americans have an unemployment rate twice the national average, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Unlike its contemporaries, however, First Nations also administers grants to help develop more sustainable economies on Indian reservations around the country. It does so thanks, in part, to grants it receives.

In the past two months, First Nations received two grants totaling $275,000 from the Agua Fund in Washington, D.C., and the Otto Bremer Trust in the Midwest to continue its work with its national food systems initiative. Another $50,000 grant was received this week from the Comcast NBC Universal Foundation for First Nations to help Indian communities bridge the digital divide experienced on many reservations.

It also has received funding from Google, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Henry Luce Foundation, Bank of America and Walmart.

“We’re hot right now,” said Randy Blauvelt, senior communication director for First Nations. “We’re looking to increase the number of individual donations to help continue this growth.”

Mike Roberts, the president and CEO of the First Nations Development Institute said, “Our goal is to diversify the economies of reservations. For instance, there are less than two dozen branch banks on reservations throughout the entire country, so in order for entrepreneurs to get access to credit, they have to go to the predatory lenders who set up shop on the borders of reservations. In reaction, we started the First Nations Oweesta Corp. that works with Indian communities to build community development financial institutions.”

When it started that program 20 years ago, there were just two such organizations in the country. Today, according to Roberts, there are 75 Indian-run community development financial institutions, with another 50 waiting for accreditation.

“That’s not a reflection of how great we are,” Roberts said. “It’s a reflection of the pent-up demand for access to credit.”

Along with access to capital, First Nations also works with communities to increase their financial literacy and knowledge of the modern economy. For example, its national food systems initiative works with communities to calculate how much money they spend on food that is produced outside of the reservation.

Using First Nations’ food sovereignty assessment tool, the Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico found it spends about $6 million a year on food produced outside the community, much of which was flour. The First Nations Development Institute helped pay for a flour mill and to start growing wheat. The next step is to scale the business so the community can start to export its flour.

In Hawaii, First Nations was able to do just that with the Wow Farm. After discovering native Hawaiians experienced similar discrimination to natives on the mainland, Mike and Tricia Hodson started building greenhouses to grow locally sourced heirloom tomatoes, which are hard to come by on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and began to sell them to the resorts.

Calculating that they could generate about $20,000 a year with each greenhouse, they teamed up with First Nations Development Institute to manufacture greenhouses and share the model with other natives on the island, which could supplement their income by $20,000 a year.

With the help of first nations, Wow Farm in just over a year built 50 greenhouses.

“We approached the state of Hawaii and the Native Hawaiian community, but we had no traction, and everyone looked at our project as just a theory,” Mike Hodson said. “But First Nations saw what we wanted to do, and they believed in us. People may just see a greenhouse on a piece of land, but they don’t see the social impact that greenhouse has. It lets people invest in themselves, and it keeps families together. To me, that’s the No. 1 thing that is occurring.”

With success stories like these, First Nations is rapidly growing.

It expects to reach the $10 million fundraising mark this year. Of that, $2.8 million will be given directly to Indian organizations, the rest will go toward its own initiatives. Though it is a major step in the right direction, Roberts knows the organization is a long way from leveling the playing field.

“We’ve enjoyed a good relationship with the philanthropic sector for a very long time,” Roberts said. “At any point in time we have about 30 grants we’re working with, but just like with good friends, where you can tell them things that maybe you wouldn’t tell someone else, we feel an obligation to tell philanthropy that they should be doing more.”

John Spina: 303-473-1389, jspina@times-call.com or twitter.com/jsspina24