Native American Heritage + Philanthropy: Bekah Sabzalian

I officially joined the professional world of philanthropy in 2017. I was drawn to my role as an equity and education focused program officer, driven by the idea of broader, deeper impact for students and educators across my state. But this new opportunity came with a difficult reality. As a former public school teacher and Native American student advocate, I was always surrounded by my community. My experience and value were always being reflected back to me—creating a continual positive feedback loop.

Entering the philanthropic landscape that loop was disrupted. According to a recent report from Native Americans in Philanthropy, only 0.4% of philanthropic funding directly supports Indian Country. Which is a reflection of the lack of Native representation and power in the philanthropic sector. Just 0.8% of grant making staff and leadership identify as solely Indigenous. In many cases, we’re hidden in the data because we’re “mixed race” or lumped as “other” or “statistically insignificant.” When genocide and land theft seek to define your legacy, the word insignificant holds immense weight.

However, despite meager philanthropic investment and continually being invisibilized, Native communities and movement builders have managed, as they have since time immemorial, to share their wisdom and present an interconnected and sustainable future. Both the Standing Rock and Land Back movements have awakened the world to Native treaty rights and the central role Native leadership must play in environmental justice. Native advocates have worked tirelessly to bring awareness and resources to the unacceptable number of murdered and missing Indigenous women around the nation. They’ve shown a light on the connection between these tragedies and the environmental destruction caused by the oil and gas industry. Intergenerational language and cultural revitalization efforts are flourishing while state-mandated, Native-created Tribal history curriculum is spreading across our nation’s public schools. The tragedy and more importantly, the survival stories of government created Indian boarding schools are being revealed. All these efforts are born from fierce love despite incredible odds. When I think of my heritage, my maternal line, my ancestors, that love is what I stand on.

Apache people are matrilineal, this means we track our family lines through our mothers. I am the descendant of Constancia Arguello, Beatirice Dominguez and Maxine Salazar; Apache and Chicana women, boarding school and Catholic school survivors who taught me my connection to the earth and to our strong, defiant and gifted ancestors. I’m also the sister of Titus Foster and step daughter of Grandma Louise’s daughter Edna DelRose Culps, Warm Springs Tribal members who taught me spiritual and cultural traditions of the Columbia River Gorge. I hold these and all my family and Native community members close as I advocate for racial justice within the philanthropic world. 

Equity and racial justice continue to grow momentum across philanthropy. For them to become a reality, philanthropic institutions must actively seek out community-accountable Native leaders to guide their strategies and grantmaking. Community leaders hiding in plain sight and whose skills and talents are essential to creating a just future. Recruiting more Native professionals in philanthropy will also ensure talented, smart folks like me will stay in the sector and find the positive reflections and connections we need to thrive and better our institutions.

If you’re compelled to learn more, please explore the work of Native Americans In Philanthropy, Sovereign Bodies Institute, Illuminative, Native Wellness Institute, The Native American Youth and Family Center, The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and The National Indian Child Welfare Association as well as the work of local Tribal Nations in your area. You can also look to the funding practices of Seeding Justice, The Northwest Area Foundation, Tribal funders like Spirit Mountain Community Fund, The Bush Foundation, and First Nations Development Institute. This is in no way an exhaustive list but just a place to begin. I’m fortunate to work for Meyer Memorial Trust, an institution dedicated to actively learning from and supporting Native leadership. As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, I urge you to begin or increase your commitment to the first peoples of America.