Sarah Eagle Heart
Courtesy Sarah Eagle Heart

CEO Sarah Eagle Heart Grows Nonprofit 'Native Americans in Philanthropy'

Kristin Butler

Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP) has revved up its outreach and networking since Sarah Eagle Heart, Oglala Lakota, came on board as its new chief executive officer in fall 2015. Eagle Heart is a fierce advocate of building strong, healthy tribal communities while preserving Native traditions.

Founded in 1990, NAP strives to power reciprocity and investment in Native communities. The national membership-based nonprofit promotes collaboration to develop meaningful philanthropic opportunities rooted in Native values. NAP is not a grant maker but rather a facilitator, connecting nonprofits and emerging leaders with Native communities. NAP recently celebrated its 25th Anniversary as the only national organization that raises awareness and support for Native and non-Native practitioners of philanthropy through engagement, education and empowerment.

"I’m excited to [continue] building upon the wisdom of my elders who have worked at NAP or [affiliated] philanthropies for the past 25 years," Eagle Heart told ICTMN. "I look forward to bringing NAP to the next level."

Since Eagle Heart took the helm, NAP has committed to expanding at least a couple key initiatives:

1) NAP is promoting and growing its Engage MAP, which launched in late 2015 and features grantseekers and grantmakers around the nation. In fall 2016, members will be able to search the Engage MAP by issue area, funding priority, and more. (It's currently organized by organization type and geography.) The purpose of the Engage MAP is to breakdown barriers between Native-led causes and giving programs to catalyze investment to and with Native-led causes. Grantseekers can search for organizations that may fund their work. Grantmakers can search for viable funding projects. The platform can be used as a tool in fund development and portfolio building. Through the Engage MAP, soon to become a members-only benefit, users "can easily connect with each other, and nonprofit foundations can leverage partnerships," Eagle Heart said.

2) As the nonprofit enters spring, NAP has been focused on its upcoming Philanthropy Institute. The theme of the 11th Annual Philanthropy Institute, to take place May 25-27 at the Catamaran Resort and Spa in San Diego, is Raising Impact with Native Voices. "This conference will be quite different from our previous endeavors, in that it is entirely focused on the intersections of philanthropy...," Eagle Heart said. "We are inviting funders, tribal philanthropy and tribal leaders to hear about the work of our Native community partners, as well as tying it into the work [of] our Native funder partners to leverage resources and collective partnerships."

The Institute offers workshops and trainings on key issue areas identified by the Native community and Native individuals working in foundations and tribal giving programs. The convening encourages Native expressions of philanthropy as a tool for exercising sovereignty.

"As a new CEO for Native Americans in Philanthropy, I want to extend a personal invitation for the leadership of your tribal council and philanthropy staff to attend this conference. This Institute facilitates dialogue and information sharing from one generation of leaders to the next," Eagle Heart said. "We host roundtable discussions to talk about models of leadership that work for Native groups, common threads, traditional methods and contemporary issues facing Native leaders in today's society."

Among the confirmed speakers are:

—William (Bill) Mendoza, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education

—Robert K. Ross, M.D.,  President and CEO for The California Endowment

—Twila True, Founder, True Sioux Foundation, True Investments LLC

—Edgar Villanueva, Vice President of Programs and Advocacy, Schott Foundation for Public Education

—Erik Stegman, Executive Director, The Center for Native American Youth

A few of the key session topics include:

Indigenous Peoples, Environmental Health and Philanthropy: "This session will discuss Native women’s advocacy efforts to bring about systematic change and bring policies in line with international human rights standards, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the direct relationship between the environment and holistic health."

Advancing Racial Equity and Authentic Partnerships with Indigenous Peoples: "Roll up your sleeves during this provocative work session using our indigenous dialogue processes to identify steps to advance racial equity in your work and community while developing more knowledge and connection with indigenous peoples."

Strategies for Funding Indigenous Communities:  "This session will provide the rationale, strategies and tactics of leading Indigenous funders based NAP’s Native Voices Rising Report and more than thirty interviews compiled in GrantCraft’s new guide, 'Funding Indigenous Peoples: Strategies for Support'."

Why we should care about Digital Inclusion: "In today's world, we mine data. Data is the raw material of the Information Age. This session will engage the audience in a discussion about successful digital inclusion, and/or barriers and challenges to digital inclusion."

Swipe Right: Attractive Impact Investments: "Like in dating, finding the perfect Program Related Investment (PRI) for and organization can sometimes be a long, arduous and daunting process. Session attendees will gain a basic understanding of PRIs, what makes them attractive, how to find the right match, how to measure results of a PRI and how to build a 'portfolio' of PRIs."

Making the Invisible Visible, Urban Indians: "It is a common myth that Native Americans Primarily live on reservations which has lead to misconceptions in funding needs in urban and rural communities. In this session presenters will share a snapshot of a nonprofit sector currently serving the needs of off-reservation American Indian Populations as well the findings of a three-year [study]."

About Sarah Eagle Heart: From the Rez to CEO

Sarah Eagle Heart attributes her passion to empower Native communities to a confluence of life and professional experiences, though particularly the challenges she overcame in her formative youth years. Eagle Heart grew up in an Oglala Lakota tribal housing community called LaCreek Sunrise Housing, located about a mile outside of Martin, South Dakota, a farming town, bordering the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Rosebud Indian Reservation. Due to her location on the outskirts of the small, predominantly non-Native city, population 1,100, Eagle Heart was privy to fraught racial tensions. "In that specific location you're exposed to racial issues from a very early age," Eagle Heart said.

A particularly offensive experience stands out in Eagle Heart's mind — a cultural appropriation she fought vehemently to overturn despite overwhelming resistance, discouragement and attempted censorship from adults including school and community authority figures. "Our high school mascot was the warrior. The homecoming ceremony involved five warrior princesses, a medicine man and a big chief — 'characters' played by the kids who were the most popular in our high school," Eagle Heart said. "At the time, it was a mostly white town."

Sarah Eagle Heart and her twin sister Emma Eagle Heart-White were 16-year-old high school juniors in 1994 when the “Warrior Homecoming Ceremony” was on its 57th year. (At that time, the twins went by Trimble, the paternal family name.) While more than two decades have passed since the incident, the memory is imprinted in Eagle Heart's mind like it was yesterday. In the homecoming ceremony, five women dressed up like Native Americans, sitting cross-legged in a circle around a fire, singing Indian love songs. A “Medicine Man” — wearing men’s traditional regalia complete with a roach and eagle feather bustle — pranced around the circle, inspecting each girl's ears, mouth, hair, clothing and weight, ultimately choosing a “Warrior Princess” for the “Big Chief”, who wore a war bonnet. "Everything that could be wrong with it was wrong," Eagle Heart said. The ceremony insulted proud tribal histories and culture, dehumanizing Indians and denigrated the the self-esteem of Native youth. 

"Being twins, we had this unspoken communication," Eagle Heart said. With one glance at the other, the twins knew they had to put an end to the "sexist, racist and spiritually degrading" tradition, she said. "You can't portray our Native women as sexual objects. It's not okay for anyone to dress up and pretend that they're Native.”

In an interesting twist, Eagle Heart was actually interning for Indian Country Today in the summers between her high school career. "I was exposed to communications and writing, and I knew the power of media and communications," said Eagle Heart, who covered tribal politics for the former newspaper, then-based in Rapid City. "We went on the radio right before our senior year. We went to the newspapers," Eagle Heart said. "We told everyone we could think of that this was happening and that we were going to protest.”

The principal called the twins into his office on the first day of school. “He said, 'People think you're doing this because you're mad you're not going to be a warrior princess,'" Eagle Heart recalls. To the young twins, it was baffling that he was so short-sighted and couldn't comprehend the egregiousness of the offensive tradition. "In 1994, the community was pretty segregated. People outside the reservation didn't know what was happening at the high school, and people in the community were very desensitized. We were met with crazy resistance and violence. We were very young, and it wasn't just students, it was parents, too, and people in the community. There were really upset we were protesting this 57-year-old ceremony. Anywhere we went, we had to be careful. If we went into the store, people would stare or argue. People would threaten to throw rocks at us. It was crazy."

The twins organized an educational forum, and many people from Pine Ridge came to help, as well as people from different communities. "We called it a peaceful protest. We held the protest down the main street with a drum. In the auditorium, we had a big circle around the audience and chanted with the drum. We disrupted what they were doing. "We helped others learn the value of our culture and heritage. In many communities, people had no idea of the issues that we face. They were not aware of the poverty, the teen suicide epidemics."

The first year of protesting, police kicked the girls out of the high school auditorium. "But we came back and protested for a total of four years. They thought we'd go to college and never come back. But our family still lives there, and our grandma is in the community," Eagle Heart said.

Eagle Heart was raised by her grandma after her mother, formerly a tribal cop, suffered severe head trauma due to a car accident caused by two, racing drunk drivers. Eagle Heart was just 7 years old when her mother's life was forever changed, eradicating her short-term memory. "My mother suffered a traumatic head injury that left her mentally like a teenager," Eagle Heart said. The emotionally destabilizing and challenging situation was made worse by stigma. "At that time, in 1985, people didn't know how to talk about mental health and what that meant for us as a family. When she woke up she couldn't remember having kids," Eagle Heart said. "I was 7. That was one of my first memories."

Those early life challenges taught Eagle Heart how to weather hardship and demand respect. "Those experiences taught me how to be a lifelong advocate for Native people, and it taught me the importance of keeping our culture intact and educating others," she said.

After earning her MBA from the University of Phoenix, San Diego; in addition to her Bachelor’s of Arts in Mass Communications, and a Bachelor’s of Arts in American Indian Studies from Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, Eagle Heart went on to run military assistance programs in Pensacola, Florida, and manage advertising at Viejas Casino in San Diego. Most recently, she served as the Team Leader for Diversity and Ethnic Ministries and Program Officer for Indigenous Ministry at The Episcopal Church in New York City. Through The Episcopal Church, she worked extensively with indigenous peoples worldwide. "I know the gifts and challenges of our beautiful communities," she said.

The Episcopal Church serves two million members in 16 countries. Under her leadership, The Episcopal Church became the first major denomination to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery focusing programmatic education and advocacy on accurate history education, cultural teachings, healing and asset-based community development. Eagle Heart excelled at activating key leaders from grassroots to corporate level through capacity building – skills she took with her to NAP. "I never imagined I would end up here, selected as CEO. It's very humbling for me," she said.

Individuals, organizations, grantseekers and grantmakers can join NAP, or renew a membership at

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turbojesus's picture
Submitted by turbojesus on
All native americans are philanthropists; they weren't born strong and their time of life has been brief. They died never having been eligible for the benefits like social security and medicare. Charity, what for? What little they have. They owe no farther debt than to pay the ground below.