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Indigenous Leaders Encourage Trust and Capacity Building for Brighter Futures

Above: Amber Buker and Brittany Gene pose with Beth Churchill after being awarded the American Family Insurance Prize: $50,000 of unrestricted funding to scale their work in Native banking and scholarship support for Navajo youth.

During the 2024 Indigenous Innovators Summit, Solve convened technologists, academics, government representatives, and business leaders in Tucson, AZ to build upon the Indigenous legacy of exchanging resources, knowledge, and technology to address modern challenges with historic roots. In attendance was also the latest cohort of Indigenous Communities Fellows. Attendees shared their journeys, challenges, needs, and successes, all while emphasizing the importance of community-centered approaches to uplift Indigenous peoples across the United States and Canada.

(Event attendees, including Henry Jake Foreman, Program Director of New Mexico Community Capital (above), spent time envisioning Indigenous futures together and shared their ideal world in various formats, including a mock-up newspaper.)

Dr. Karletta Chief, Director of the Indigenous Resilience Center and Professor at the University of Arizona highlighted the inherent complexities faced by Indigenous individuals pursuing careers in technology and science.

Dr. Chief's work delves into the intricacies of environmental science, where she encounters the limitations of the Western approach when working with Indigenous peoples. She recalls her research into the Gold King mine spill. Conventional scientific methods often overlook and undermine the nuanced protocols embedded within Indigenous cultures. "The Western approach to science and research is often not applicable to [Indigenous] communities. Even if I collect water samples or soil samples, there is a protocol to doing that, it’s not just an object to be taken. They are part of a greater system important to the people," she explains.

Reflecting on her journey, Dr. Chief underscores trust is not readily granted despite shared heritage. "Being from academia, I’m automatically not trusted, even though I’m Native American. I’m Navajo," she shares, adding that it’s necessary to establish diverse community connections and buy-in.

(Left to right: Dr. Karletta Chief, Chantel Harrison (2023 Indigenous Communities Fellow), and Breanna Lameman)

Indigenous Communities Fellows Amber Buker, the Founder of Totem, and Danielle Forward, the Founder of Natives Rising, emphasized the significance of supporting Indigenous youth and innovators just starting out. Buker reflects on the pivotal influence of Forward, whose unwavering support fueled her entrepreneurial journey. "Seeing your work was part of what inspired me to know I could build Totem," she shares gratefully. 

Forward is an advocate of the transformative power of nurturing belief and confidence in Indigenous individuals, especially younger generations. "You can give $40,000 in scholarships to a Native youth, but if they don’t believe in themselves, they won’t go," she asserts. "You have to cover the psychological and emotional needs of these communities. People must believe in themselves."

Beth Churchill, Senior Community and Social Impact Strategist for the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact emphasized the importance of unrestricted funding for empowering Indigenous leaders. "Those leading solutions know best what they need to advance their work," she shared. Churchill stressed that while financial resources are essential, unrestricted funding, along with supportive resources, is also crucial for capacity building and sustainable impact.

Jessica Stago, Co-Founder of Change Labs; Dave Castillo, CEO of Native Community Capital; and Wenona Benally Baldenegro, Assistant Attorney General of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, discussed the broader implications of innovation within Indigenous communities. Castillo highlighted systemic challenges such as redlining on reservations. Stago emphasized the importance of relationship-based approaches in administering federal funds. She also called attention to the perception change Indigenous individuals may need to overcome before identifying within the entrepreneurial space.“There's no Indigenous language that has the word entrepreneurship. The words ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘business owner’ are perceived as extractive.”

(Dave Castillo discusses findings from the report Redlining on Reservations: The Brutal Cost Of Financial Services Inaccessibility In Native Communities)

During the summit's final day, discussions delved into intergenerational change. Dalton Walker, Managing Editor at Indian Country Today, spoke with Heidi Todacheene, Senior Advisor to Deb Haaland, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI), about the department's vision for the future.

Todacheene elaborated on the DOI’s dedication toexpanding Spectrum–a resource President Biden deems the ‘Nation’s most important national resource–on a national scale, extending its reach to Indigenous communities throughout the country. Secretary Haaland, who also happens to be the only Native cabinet member, is championing this effort and helping to lead the new Office of Indigenous Communications and Technology (OICT).

Despite this promising endeavor, there remains a great deal of work to be done to holistically heal and care for Indigenous people. Todacheene shared that her days are never quite the same. She has fought for awareness and justice related to missing and murdered Indigenous people, US native boarding schools, and many other issues. Todacheene made herself available to the audience for questions and suggestions, understanding that the government must foreground community voices and ideas as we develop brighter futures. 

To end the second day of the summit, representatives from the Mastercard Foundation Conor Kerr and Keira LaPierre focused on the importance of empowering Indigenous youth to dream and pursue entrepreneurship. LaPierre emphasized the privilege of dreaming freely and urged Indigenous youth to embrace their potential as future business owners.

As the Indigenous Innovators Summit drew to a close, attendees shared their hope that the impact of the summit would reverberate far beyond Tucson. Participants departed with renewed determination, armed with insights, new partnerships, and a shared commitment to delivering a more inclusive and equitable future for Indigenous communities across the US and Canada.

If you are a supporter interested in amplifying the work of Indigenous communities, get involved. If you’re an innovator with a solution that uses traditional knowledge or technology,  consider applying to the 2024 Indigenous Communities Fellowship by April 18, 2024.

Indigenous Communities

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Indigenous Communities Fellowship (custom)

2024 Indigenous Communities Fellowship

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Indigenous Innovators Summit

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