First Peoples Fund

Report date
August 2016

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

First Peoples Fund (FPF) knows that change happens in tribal communities when Native artists, who often make up more than 30% of reservation communities, are financially independent and empowered to move into leadership roles within their communities and within the creative economy sector. Rolling Rez Arts (RRA), a 32-foot mobile arts classroom and alternative bank, is built on evidence presented in our 2013 market study, Establishing a Creative Economy: Art as an Economic Engine in Native Communities, which determined that artists on Pine Ridge need but often lack access to markets, supplies, space, networks, business knowledge and credit and capital in order to succeed as entrepreneurs. RRA overcomes the geographic and infrastructural barriers faced by artists on Pine Ridge by bringing these resources and services directly to them. We do this aboard RRA in the form of FPF’s artist-led workshops, financial and professional development trainings for Native artists, as well as banking services through our long-time partner Lakota Funds.
Built upon a collective leadership of nearly 30 years, over the last 17 years, FPF has worked closely with the Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and CDC sector. We have found this nexus to be a powerful catalyst for individual financial growth for artists and their families, who represent tremendous economic development potential in tribal communities. Our market study found that 51% of Native households depend on home-based businesses and that 79% of those businesses are based in traditional arts. FPF and our longtime Native CDFI partner Lakota Funds were recently highlighted as leaders in the positive economic development story unfolding across Indian Country in Access to Capital and Credit in Native Communities, a report commissioned by the Department of Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.

Three years ago, FPF began piloting Native Arts Economy Building program, providing funding and assistance to Native CDFIs, including Lakota Funds, our RRA partner. As we deepen our partnership with Lakota Funds, we are establishing a model for building thriving creative economies in tribal communities across arts and banking sectors.
Piloting RRA in our home community lowered our risks and allowed the project to quickly take root. FPF has been working in the Pine Ridge Reservation community since we were founded in 1999. We have a large family of artists and trainers based on Pine Ridge, as well as a strong circle of partners there. Pine Ridge has been the incubator where we have piloted new programs and developed our understanding of the components and dynamics of creative economies in Indian Country. When we set out to develop RRA in collaboration with the Lakota Funds and Artspace, with an eye toward building an adaptable model for reservation communities, we did so where our networks and partnerships are strongest. When we hit obstacles, we have been able to turn to our partners for assistance and quickly build momentum behind the project. For example, when a lack of sufficient wireless Internet access prevented Lakota Funds from conducting secure banking aboard RRA, Oglala Lakota College offered to provide access to hard ground wiring on their campuses.

Key lessons learned

A documented challenge in the CDFI field is the need for consistent and more uniform data collection and evaluation tools. When working in partnership, this need is more acute. FPF’s customized data management system, Outcome Tracker, is built on our Theory of Change, incorporates specific RRA forms, and reflects our organizational and program needs and priorities. Similarly, Lakota Funds has its own complex data gathering and management systems. Going forward, we need to deepen this partnership to measure and track our collective impact together. Right now across the field, which was recently reinforced in a meeting with our Surdna Foundation Program Officer, each organization has their own tools and methodology and so the collective data for the sector is inconsistent. We, as a partnership, are experiencing this challenge, especially when collecting data on the community level. Going forward, we will work with Native CDFI and other nonprofit partners as well as data experts to strengthen our collective systems to accurately measure and tell the story of the transformation of Native artists and the growth of community based solutions to support the creative economy.
We initially planned to roll out twice-weekly mobile banking alongside arts workshops in the spring of 2016. LFFCU’s Internet security requirements combined with the poor and inconsistent quality of bandwidth on Pine Ridge meant that RRA was not able to offer banking services until July. The credit union’s services require a ground-wire connection in specific districts with the exception of Pine Ridge and Porcupine. We are working with the Oglala Lakota College to access their hard-wire connection in the other districts.

Poor and expensive Internet access is an endemic issue on Pine Ridge. Challenges of limited access to broadband, high prices for Internet service, and nonexistent infrastructure across Indian Country were well established in Native Public Media’s study, New Media, Technology and Internet Use in Indian Country. FPF is determined to continue to work with LFCU and other partners, including Oglala Lakota College, to overcome challenges of the digital divide and bring RRAs’ services to the entire Pine Ridge community weekly. We anticipate establishing fee-based agreements with Oglala Lakota College and other institutions to access their hard-wired broadband.
We have contracted emerging artists on Pine Ridge as instructors for our arts workshops, and in many cases their group teaching and facilitation skills need to be honed. Their highly skilled expertise as artists (beadwork, quillwork, bow-making) is not always accompanied by an ability to create lesson plans, lead classes and communicate their knowledge. As an artist and business coach, our Program Manager spent more time than anticipated coaching artists as instructors.

As part of our overall strategy to build the creative economy of Pine Ridge, FPF is committed to working with local Native artists to serve as RRA instructors. We are developing procedures and tools to support artists who wish to lead classes. One of our lead artist-instructors, Warren “Guss” Yellow Hair (Oglala Lakota), is an instructor at Oglala Lakota College, a consultant to the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce and owner of his own business, Tatanka Rez Tours. Guss incorporates Lakota language, songs and prayers into his teaching. As we develop plans to help artists teach, we are tapping into Guss’s expertise and that of other lead trainers and culture bearers to shape the artist-instructor training and tools

Reflections on the community innovation process

FPF is inclusive and engages key stakeholders, Native artists/culture bearers, in everything we do. They informed the decisions behind RRA, they are its teachers, trainers, spokespeople and primary beneficiaries. RRA workshops are taught by Native artists, with the majority led by FPF fellows, alumni and certified trainers. Collaboration is key to building a movement of culture bearers and artists as critical agents of change in tribal communities, and the RRA relies on trusted partnerships with Lakota Funds and Artspace. Similarly, a commitment to resourcefulness, to uplifting the cultural assets within Native communities that have been linked to the wellbeing of Native peoples for centuries, is at the heart of our work and a guiding principle for RRA. Many of RRA’s hands-on workshops include tradition-based art forms, consisting of introductions to the history and cultural practices of art forms generally passed on by Tiospayes. RRA workshops focus on traditional practices such as beading, drum-making, and cradleboard-making — examples of the cultural assets that, when fully supported, have the collective potential to strengthen Native individuals, families and their communities.

Progress toward an innovation

With support from the Bush Foundation and ArtPlace America, FPF and our partners achieved a community innovation on Pine Ridge Reservation. Our mobile arts classroom and bank has offered 40-plus classes and workshops and reached 200-plus Native artists across the reservation. Native-led workshops, professional development, banking and financial education are ongoing.

The RRA overcomes the constant, defining challenge of transportation on Pine Ridge, providing a more equitable and effective approach by bringing Native artists the resources they need for growth and entrepreneurial success. The local community is taking ownership of RRA, and the project is on a path to sustainability. We partnered with Sundance Institute to offer a film camp at Thunder Valley CDC. Bird Runningwater, (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache), Director of Sundance Institute's Native American and Indigenous Program, led the camp, accompanied by Sundance fellows with roots on Pine Ridge, Jessie Short Bull (FPF alumni), Willie White and Razelle Benally. Also, FPF is finalizing our agreement with the Red Cloud Heritage Center to utilize RRA to purchase art across Pine Ridge, saving artists transportation costs.

What's next?

The development and purchase of RRA was fully funded through ArtPlace America and the Bush Foundation, and we have approximately 18 months of programming funding in hand. FPF continues to seek additional future funding for RRA, including through the U.S. Administration for Native Americans and the National Endowment for the Arts. Together with our partners Artspace and Lakota Funds, we are also seeking funding for the RRA’s companion project, Oglala Lakota Artspace, the first-ever creative space on Pine Ridge that will bring studio, gallery and meeting space to Native artists as well as access to supplies and business and financial literacy training. We are halfway to meeting our $2.3 million design and construction budget, and scheduled to break ground for the 8,500 square foot building on five acres of land in fall 2017. Oglala Lakota Artspace will be adjacent to the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce in Kyle, within a ten-minute walk of Oglala Lakota College. The project includes a garage for RRA and will serve as a homebase for the mobile unit.

If you could do it all over again...

Plan for a significant investment of staff time and a steep learning curve for project development for at least a year after the bus has been built in order to launch and build momentum behind the RRA. One staff member has focused three-quarters of his time formalizing work plans with collaborators and partnership agreements related to insurance, bus drivers, policies and procedures, maintenance and security requirements, as well as hiring and managing a project coordinator. Trouble shooting Internet and other maintenance issues, and building instructional and facilitation capacity for artists has required a staff member to be present on the bus at least two days a week since early spring, in many cases in a problem solving role. Similarly, seizing opportunities to build exposure and momentum for the RRA has required significant staff time and flexibility. For example, in July, we took the RRA to the Cheyenne River Reservation to participate in Cheyenne River Youth Project’s Red Can Jam graffiti festival for four days. FPF purchased 100 skate decks and nearly 50 youth designed, painted graffiti on the decks, learning from renowned graffiti artists from across the U.S.

One last thought

“More than 60% of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is unbanked or under-banked with no access to basic banking services or consumer loans. We partner with First Peoples Fund to share the services that help artists develop their businesses and make a living from their art. With the Rolling Rez Arts, we’re able to reach even more people and help artists address the issues that stand between them and successful entrepreneurship.” — Lakota Funds Executive Director Tawney Brunsch