From Land Acknowledgement to Land Back: Philanthropy’s Role & Responsibility in Returning Stolen Land to Native Communities

Thursday, February 3, 2022

From Land Acknowledgement to Land Back: Philanthropy’s Role & Responsibility in Returning Stolen Land to Native Communities
By: Celia Bottger, Program Assistant & Grants Manager, NorthLight Foundation

As an environmental funder committed to advancing transformative and equitable climate solutions, we at NorthLight Foundation recognize that integrating racial equity in all aspects of our philanthropy is crucial to our mission of ensuring a healthy and sustainable environment for all. Racism is structural; it is upheld and perpetuated by institutions, like foundations, in the ways that they operate. Thus, we strive to not only center Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities in the climate solutions and movements that we fund, but moreover to dismantle the culture of White1 supremacy that persists in our institution and in the field of philanthropy as a whole. In addition to taking concrete steps to institutionalize racial equity in our policies and practices, we at NorthLight came to recognize that we must engage in a process of decolonization. Colonization is at the root of structural racism and racial injustice. It is both the physical invasion of Indigenous peoples and land, as well as the belief that White European culture is superior to Indigenous cultures. In order to dismantle White supremacy in philanthropy, we must actively decolonize our philanthropic institutions and practices.

But what does decolonization look like at a philanthropic institution like NorthLight? This is a question that we continue to ask ourselves, and we are constantly learning new and better answers. In the context of our work, we have come to define decolonization as an ongoing process to both reckon with the connection between our foundation's wealth and the stolen wealth, land, and lives of Indigenous peoples as a result of colonization and attempts at genocide by the U.S. government, as well as embrace the responsibility we have as settlers and non-Natives to repair this generational trauma by building reciprocal, authentic relations with the Indigenous community in New York and beyond, and returning wealth, resources and land back to the original peoples of the Americas. 

Our journey to engage in decolonization as a foundation is ongoing, evolving, and incomplete. By no means are we experts on this topic. However, we believe that in order to advocate for others in our field to take on this crucial work, we must first share our journey with radical humility. 

Getting started

For many philanthropic institutions, including NorthLight, the fear of not knowing the answers to the daunting question above is enough to avoid asking it in the first place. In fact, as we came to understand, it is this fear of failure and desire to be “perfect” that are constructs of White supremacy culture itself, as anti-racist activist Tema Okun identifies in her 1999 article on White supremacy culture. These characteristics work to prevent people and institutions from engaging in the very work that would dismantle White supremacy culture, and in doing so, obstruct restorative justice, healing, and reconciliation that can repair harm and enable a liberated future. 

So the first step in our decolonization journey was to accept that we do not know and will never fully know the answers to the question: how do we decolonize as a foundation? What we do know is that failure is inevitable, as is harm to individuals and communities alike, but so is growth and learning. And we also know that our intentions are to repair harm perpetuated by settler-colonialism and dismantle White supremacy culture as much as we are able to in the context of our work as a philanthropic institution. With clear intentions, a commitment to an equitable outcome, and a willingness to try, we began our decolonization journey. 

This journey began with an understanding of where the foundation's wealth originated. Originally incorporated as the Dan and Sheryl Tishman Family Foundation in 2011, NorthLight’s endowment comes directly from the Tishman family, whose wealth is derived primarily from construction management and real estate development in New York City and elsewhere in the U.S. While Tishman Hotels and Realty is no longer a significant owner of real estate in New York, it is clear that the wealth of the foundation derives specifically from the development of land that was stolen from Indigenous hands. What we came to realize as we deepened our decolonization journey was that any attempt to decolonize the foundation’s wealth must result in reparations for this stolen land and wealth, beyond just writing a land acknowledgment or increasing our grantmaking for Indigenous-led organizations. 

Beyond a land acknowledgment 

We did, however, begin our decolonization journey with a land acknowledgment. As a foundation whose wealth stems from the occupation of Indigenous land, we felt it was important to acknowledge and name the Indigenous Tribes and Nations upon whose land our foundation currently operates. That is, after all, the purpose of a land acknowledgment, according to this Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgements, written by Felicia Garcia. Land acknowledgments are first and foremost verbal statements of truth that ground us in history and reify the owed sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. 

We quickly realized that crafting a land acknowledgment is a whole process in and of itself. A myriad of questions arose, ranging from which Tribes and Nations to name in the acknowledgment to what language to use. We began by searching Native land upon which our New York office is based using this online tool, but while the tool provided us with the name of a local Nation, simply stating the name of the Nation in a written acknowledgment on our website seemed performative and hollow. Creating a land acknowledgment should directly involve the collaboration and consent of the local Indigenous community being acknowledged. 

But, how does one get in touch with a local Tribe or Nation? To start, we reached out to the Manna-hatta Fund, an effort organized by both non-Native and Native volunteers to encourage settlers to gift money as a kind of “land tax” to the American Indian Community House (AICH), a non-profit organization that serves the health, social, and cultural needs of Native Americans residing in New York City. Folks at the Manna-hatta Fund not only provided guidance on how to respectfully craft our land acknowledgment but also put us in touch with Native leaders at the AICH. 

To heed the Manna-hatta Fund’s call to action, we decided that we would donate a percentage of our operating budget -- representative of the wealth tied directly to our NYC-based office -- to the Manna-hatta Fund as a way to pair our land acknowledgment with an action that would materially impact the Native community in New York. Moreover, this annual “gift” would serve both as NorthLight’s commitment to reparative action, as well as compensation for the Native leaders who shared their time and knowledge with us.

Shifting from grantmaking to power-sharing

At this point, we were ready to sign a check and publish a written land acknowledgment on our website that included our commitment to the Manna-hatta Fund and AICH. We had also discussed increasing our funding to our Indigenous-led grantee partners, as well as expanding the number of Indigenous-led organizations in our grantmaking portfolio in an effort to shift more resources to Indigenous communities. But through continued conversations with both members of AICH and the Manna-hatta Fund, we realized that our efforts to engage in decolonization must extend beyond our external grantmaking practices and into our internal institutional structure. 

We were still thinking of our commitment to decolonize through the lens of grantmaking, which, for a foundation whose mission is to give grants, seems like a logical response. However, we came to learn that the process of decolonization does not, and should not, begin and end with cutting a check to a Native-led organization. While giving more grants to Indigenous-led organizations is an important part of NorthLight’s efforts to institutionalize racial justice, engaging in decolonization requires a more systemic approach, which stems from understanding where our foundation’s wealth came from, (i.e., how it originated from stolen Indigenous lands) and necessitates a fundamental shift in how our institution shares power with Indigenous communities, as well as other communities of color that have been oppressed by the culture of White supremacy. 

Instead of deciding where NorthLight’s resources should go to benefit the Indigenous community in New York, we turned to our Native leaders for their wisdom. As longtime members of and advocates for the Native community in New York, they know best where NorthtLight’s philanthropic dollars would be the most impactful and thus initiate a process of reconciliation between the foundation and the Native community. We have learned that reconciliation begins by reaching out and building relationships with local Indigenous people, with the intention of sharing power with Indigenous communities, and an understanding that these relationships are reciprocal and not transactional. It’s not about what the foundation can do to help Indigenous communities, but rather how each entity can mutually benefit and grow from the relationship.

Land back

From these conversations, NorthLight has committed to a process of land back: finding a way to return physical land to the Native community residing in the Five Boroughs. What started as a conversation about giving essentially a grant to the AICH has blossomed into an effort to return land to the Native community in New York. 

From our ongoing conversations with Native leaders, we were made aware of the fact that the Native community in New York still does not have a permanent home on the very land that is theirs. The community, which represents Indigenous Peoples who come from many different Tribes and Nations all over the country, has no space that is theirs to use for ceremonies, events, or simply as a gathering space. Thus, as part of our effort to engage in reparations and reconciliation with the Native community in New York, NorthLight has committed to leveraging not only our philanthropic dollars but moreover our connections to the larger philanthropic community to secure a permanent space for the NY-based Indigenous community. 

While NorthLight’s responsibility to repair harm with Indigenous folks is rooted in the foundation’s unique history and connection to settler-colonialism, the Native community’s call for land return extends beyond NorthLight’s capacity as an individual foundation to locate and/or donate urban space and requires more collective action. This is why we are working to bring together a group of committed funders and individual donors, along with Native partners, to pool our collective knowledge, networks, and resources to help find a permanent space for the NY-based Indigenous community. We’re calling this nascent effort the Land Back Action Circle, to emphasize that decolonization necessitates meaningful and active engagement with the Native community.

This is what decolonization should look like: a fundamental shift in how we, as a foundation, engage with the concept of “philanthropy” in a way that transcends the flow of money from foundation to grantee. Instead, philanthropy can be used as a tool to shift power to communities that have systematically been disempowered in order to heal generations of trauma and facilitate a liberated future. 

If you work for a foundation that has begun to engage in a decolonization process or are thinking of doing so, we invite you to join us in this work. We offer our journey as an example, or at the very least as inspiration to begin asking questions about what decolonization might look like at your foundation. Our most recent Environmental Grantmakers Association Fellow, Tiana Wilson-Blindman, Oglala Lakota, developed this Land Acknowledgement Toolkit to guide funders through the land acknowledgment process.

If you are a New York-based funder, we invite you to build relations with the local Native community by joining our Land Back Action Circle. If you’d like to begin with a peer-to-peer conversation, please reach out to Celia Bottger or Kate Sinding Daly; we would love to connect. 

 1While there remain differing opinions among scholars and authors on the capitalization of “White,” I have chosen to capitalize it to racialize the White identity, and to affirm that Whiteness is an American racial identity just as Blackness is, with a history that must not be neutralized or diminished with a lower case “w.” These articles by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Nell Irvan Painter, and this tweet by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi offer further rationale for capitalizing the “W” in White.