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Do Native Americans Celebrate Christmas?

Do Natives Celebrate CX - Rosebud SiouxThere often arises the question among non-Native Americans as to whether or not Indians celebrate Christmas. Well, the simple answer is yes, many of us do celebrate Christmas. But, to understand the complete answer, one must look at the question through the lens of history.

For centuries before any European contact, Native Americans held in high regard the winter solstice, which occurs on December 21-22, and they held celebrations around that time of year.

After European contact, many Native American tribes blended Christian beliefs with their traditional cultures and began celebrating a hybrid of Christian and Native beliefs. In fact, about three quarters of the Indian population identifies with a secular faith, the most common being Native American Catholics. So, their celebration of Christmas should not be a surprise.

In addition, the holidays are a time of giving and this is not a foreign concept to Native cultures. All throughout the year, many Native American cultures celebrate special occasions and events with giveaways. Such generosity in Native cultures is a sign of a giving heart, with spiritual as well as social value. So, the concept of holiday giving easily coincides with traditional Native American beliefs.

Do Natives Celebrate CX - Ester Begay & Albert TsosieBoth the Winter Solstice and Christmas are a time to look forward to what is coming in the new year, a time when hope abounds. This is also a time when National Relief Charities is focusing on services for those that perhaps need a little boost of hope and cheer. In addition to providing services such as winter fuel for Elders to heat their homes, staple foods for senior centers and Thanksgiving meals for Elders and their families, each year NRC brightens the holidays for tens of thousands of Native Americans through our Holiday gift and meal programs. Native children, teens, families and Elders alike enjoy the gifts and the opportunity to celebrate the holiday season in the same ways as other Americans.

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Holiday Gifts for Children of the Reservations

If you have been following the National Relief Charities blog for some time now, you may be familiar with some of the topics I have written. Either way, I’d like to briefly reintroduce myself. My name is Andrew Bentley, and I am an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. In June of 2012, I joined NRC as an AmeriCorps VISTA. After my year of service completed with NRC, I went to work for the St. Francis Indian School (SFIS) on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota. This fall, NRC invited me back to be a part of their Long-Term Solutions team.

Holiday and Year-Round Giving - Happy HolidaysWhile leaving the place I called “home” was bittersweet, my return to NRC is something for which I am incredibly grateful. My time at SFIS gave me insight I would otherwise never have had, like seeing the importance that institutions like SFIS and NRC play in the lives of children on rural reservations, especially during the holiday season.

While some may feel it is frivolous for a nonprofit to provide Christmas stockings for thousands of youth, NRC views this quite differently. It isn’t all about the stockings. It is about the experience. It is about the gift of receiving and what that creates for a young person, especially those living on federal Indian reservations.

A little girl from Pojoaque with a big stockingThink for a moment. Put yourself in their shoes. You are a child too young to be so aware of the struggle all around you. After what funding your family receives for the month is gone, things get lean as usual. Mom, Dad, Grandpa and Grandma want to give you the world, but they can’t. The struggle is real, and for you Christmas is just another day off from school.

Bear with me for just another minute and keep imaging yourself as this child. You are at school, the one place where you know you are safe and can depend on having two meals a day. After weeks of anticipation, Santa and his elves have finally arrived with a Christmas stocking for you and the rest of your classmates. Santa visits with you briefly. Teacher takes your picture with Santa. You return to class with stocking in hand and food in your stomach. Today was a good day.

For some children, days like these don’t often come. In fact, there are some children that may not receive anything at all for Christmas. There is a huge value to spreading holiday cheer. It matters not that the stockings are a mix of toys and practical items; the children were remembered.

Pine Ridge youth get a visit from SantaBy partnering with reservation schools, NRC has provided countless youth with a holiday gift of their very own and the opportunity to see the man all kids look forward to seeing every year, Santa. While moments like these may be fleeting for children growing up on some of the poorest reservations, the impact of these moments lasts forever. Simply experiencing the gift of “receiving” boosts a child’s self-esteem and potentially influences the child to become a future giver who remembers others in need.

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Reservation Animal Rescue on #GivingTuesday

Now an annual event, #GivingTuesday is becoming a day of remembrance when millions of people come out to support their favorite charities and causes. And today, we want to shout out to animal lovers everywhere to remember this special cause:  the four-leggeds on the reservations.

GivingTuesday - ROAR logoOur reservation animal rescue program, ROAR, supports rescue, rehabilitation, foster care and adoption for animals of the reservation. We work directly with animal welfare programs, including mobile programs, to promote the well-being of animals in remote reservation communities.

Difficult realities on the reservations create a high need for animal rescue and adoption. The high rates of poverty, unemployment, health issues and food insecurity are similar to those of undeveloped countries. And while the people living in these communities deeply care about the animals, they are often unable to afford animal care and sometimes the care is unavailable in their immediate communities.

Molly when found on the Navajo Reservation

Molly when found on the Navajo Reservation

This is where ROAR comes in, empowering the people who rescue dogs and cats and nurse them back to care. With 1,500 stray dogs roaming the Navajo Reservation and other reservations challenged with animal overpopulation and related public health risk, ROAR is a bright light for animals of the reservations and their caregivers, supporting spay and neuter services, immunizations, shelters, animal welfare education, food and other supplies for about 18,000 dogs and cats a year.

Molly rescued and safe in foster care

Molly rescued and safe in foster care

If you find it in your heart to remember animals of the reservation this #GivingTuesday, your ROAR gift will help pay for food and medical supplies provided by animal rescuers and often paid for out of their own pockets. Each year, we supply about 65,000 pounds of pet food and other supplies and your gift of a foster care kit or kits will help these animals until they are ready for adoption into forever homes – where they belong.

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Social Equity

Kelly mentioned “social equity” in her blog topic on Chaske Spencer and Native Americans Giving Back, and it got me to thinking, just what is social equity?  Well, there are many broad definitions and there are many focused definitions.  And although the definitions vary slightly based on the field of study or the context of topic being discussed, the theme remains the same:

Social equity “implies fair access to livelihood, education, and resources; full participation in the political and cultural life of the community; and self-determination in meeting fundamental needs.”

Social equity - President Obama - Social JusticeSo, how does social equity apply to Native Americans? Well, to begin with, many Native Americans do not have fair access to these things. There is a disparity that extends into Indian country and the results are terrible – without open and fair access to these things, the conditions of poverty are aggravated.  And this is not something that happened recently, or as a result of an inability to try.

I have seen firsthand the courage and determination and steadfast adherence to a plan to “make things better” for a family or community, yet that plan falls short for reasons as simple as lack of resources. This lack can be insufficient funds for a community project such as a garden where hoses, tools and other equipment are needed to raise healthy natural food for a community. Or, it can be loss of hope in the face of incredible and extreme hardship… lack of money for heat in the winter, or food to feed the family, or transportation to get to work or take the kids to Head Start in the morning.

When I think about equity, I don’t think of equality (which is important too), but rather, I think of fairness.   In an attempt to clearly define social equity, it was stated:

“To be clear, ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ are terms that are often used interchangeably, and to a large extent, they have similar meanings. The difference is one of nuance:  while equality can be converted into a mathematical measure in which equal parts are identical in size or number, equity is a more flexible measure allowing for equivalency while not demanding sameness.”

I like this facet of the definition because we are not all the same. We do not have same cultural or religious beliefs, yet we all deserve the fairness that social equity implies. Nobody should be left out of this life. We should all have fair access to food, shelter, education. We should all have open participation in what is happening in our community and the opportunity to meet our own fundamental needs.

But, this is not the case for all of us. Native Americans have been dealing with issues of social inequity  for decades, as we navigated treaties that were unfair and continuously altered to benefit the growing non-Native American population of the United States. This was the case with my tribe and our original homelands.  We were sent to live on a tiny reservation along the Minnesota River, until the U.S. decided to waive their obligations to the 1851 treaty and ultimately kicked the Sisseton and Wahpeton out of Minnesota.

Social Equity - Admit one, admit allMy point is this: The lack of social equity is really everybody’s problem. We are all a part of this complex mess of how to be fair and how to allow all the citizens of the U.S. fair access to everything that they need in life. And I’m not talking about the latest cell phone or a tablet to watch Netflix movies on while they wait for their plane to Florida for vacation. I’m talking about fair access to basic human needs such as food, clean water, education, adequate housing and the ability to forge their own livelihood and contribute to decisions that affect their community. I’m talking about the opportunity to create projects in a community that bring sustainable impact for everyone in that community. I’m talking about the opportunity to learn and to attend college so that communities can have Native American doctors, nurses, electricians, architects, community developers and business people.

Social equity is about ensuring and creating equal access to basic needs and opportunity so that individuals and families can share in a reasonable quality of life.

I remember a little Sisseton Wahpeton boy that was hungry at school because he missed breakfast. And I remember how that little boy was sent to the principal’s office that same morning, where he ate a bowl of cereal and had a small juice, because the teacher and the principal knew the boy was hungry and they simply wanted to help.

Social Equity - Murray Lee - cropped, sized 1That little boy was me…and I will always remember that. And it’s not that I was hungry because my parents didn’t care or because they didn’t love me, but rather, we simply didn’t have the resources or the access to them. We did the best we could, and sometimes that meant falling just a little bit short. Sometimes you just need help from those that are able and willing to reach out.

We can all play a part in ensuring Native Americans have fair access to the things we should all enjoy as citizens of the United States and as human beings. And whether you donate money to make life better for the people that National Relief Charities serves, or you donate material goods and services, or you simply donate your voice to create awareness of the issue, it all helps. Whatever you do makes a difference.

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Native Americans Giving Back: Chaske Spencer

Inspiring a belief in a brighter future and shining a light on a path to change is no small undertaking but one Native American celebrity has taken it on:  Chaske Spencer.

Lakota Sioux, Chaske Spencer (pronounced Chess-kay) was born in Oklahoma and grew up on reservations in Montana and Idaho. Breaking the mold by being both musician and athlete, Chaske is skilled in singing, playing bass and drum and Native American dancing, as well as football, track and horseback riding.

With a strong interest in photography, Chaske first imagined his career behind the camera but soon found himself in front of the camera acting. As a teen, Chaske acted at the Lewiston Civic Theatre. He later studied theatre at Montana School of the Arts and Lewis & Clark State College, and worked with acting coaches like David Gideon and Ed Kovens. Moving to New York City to fuel his acting career, Chaske played Dracula off-Broadway and various roles in The Roundabout and The Public Theatre.

It was in New York that casting director Rene Haynes discovered Chaske and cast him in his first feature film, “Skins” (2002). This led to the actor’s lead roles in “Dreamkeeper” and “Into the West” by Steven Speilberg. Haynes also cast Chaske in the role for which he is best known, Sam Uley of the werewolf pack in “The Twilight Saga.” His latest film is “Winter in the Blood” (2013).

Chaske Spencer, pub. at

Chaske Spencer, pub. at

A social activist, Chaske is passionate about making a difference. He speaks and supports fundraisers for nonprofits such as the Osage Nation Foundation and the National Museum of the American Indian. Chaske is especially focused on reducing poverty and creating sustainable communities. To this end, Chaske is teaming with producer Ted Kurdyla and his manager on a documentary and a feature film through his production company, Urban Dream.

Chaske supports United Global Shift in working for a shift from survival and scarcity to possibility and peace, and a shift of power away from government and to the people. Their “Be the Shift” projects focus on environment, employment and entrepreneurship, health and education, empowering people to create sustainable, lasting change in their communities.

A spokesperson for the “Native Vote” campaign” in 2012, Chaske sees a first step in creating a shift for Native Americans is exercising the right to vote and electing legislators who understand the need for empowerment and change. Only 2 of 5 Native Americans eligible to vote are registered. Chaske also teamed up with First Lady Michelle Obama on the “Let’s Move! Indian Country” campaign to promote healthier lifestyles among Native families and communities.

Like Chaske, part of NRC’s mission is supporting long-term solutions as a way forward to a brighter future. Our sustainability projects focus on health and nutrition, including projects like Let’s Move! and enhanced gardening projects, youth development and environmental emergency preparedness. Last year we tilled gardens, built raised garden beds for Elders, supported garden training, and taught healthy cooking, food service and food safety for 234 people from the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River reservations. We also provided college readiness training for 362 Native students from the Navajo Nation and surrounding pueblos.

If we have one wish going forward into 2015, it would be social equity for all. We congratulate Chaske Spencer for his insight and care in working to create lasting change and social equity for Native Americans and other cultures.


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Native Americans Giving Back: Graham Greene

Not every Native American is sought out for Indian roles, mainstream movie roles and cable TV roles, or recognized for all and awarded for most, but here’s one who is: Graham Greene.

Born in 1952 on Six Nations reserve #40 in Oshweken, Ontario, Canada, Graham Greene is Oneida. His reservation, formally known as the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, is home to Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora peoples who unified under the Great Tree of Peace during the American Revolution, making them one of the largest bands in Canada with more than 25,000 members.

Perhaps best known for his Academy Award nomination for best supporting role in Dances with Wolves (1990), Greene had Native roles in movies such as “Thunderheart,” “The Last of His Tribe,” and his debut film “Running Brave.” Greene also had roles in mainstream films such as “Twilight: New Moon,” “The Green Mile,” “Maverick,” and “Die Hard With a Vengeance.” Starting out as an audio tech for rock bands, Graham graduated from The Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto in 1974.

Graham Greene, pub. at

Graham Greene, pub. at

Loved by millions, Graham received two Gemini Awards for “Best Performance” in a  Youth Program or Series (1994) and in a Pre-School Program or Series (1998). He received the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for arts and culture (1997), a Grammy for best spoken word album for children, “Listen to the Storyteller” (1999), and the Earle Grey Lifetime Achievement Award (of the Canadian Gemini Awards) for his body of work on television (2004). He currently plays Malachi Strand in the A&E TV series, “Longmire.”

In 2008, Graham was awarded an honorary law degree by Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario for his contributions to society – and there are many, in addition to his craft as an actor.

Recognizing the gift of resilience and the value of connection, Graham donated a voiceover for the YMCA awareness campaign on nurturing the “potential of youth.” With Thanksgiving upon us, Graham urges all of us to stop and give thanks for the young people around us – children, students, grandchildren – and for Indian nations surviving another hard year.

Like Graham, NRC respects the potential of all youth and their right to social equity. Last year, NRC provided school supplies for more than 25,000 Native American children in K-12 schools. We supported literacy programs for nearly 17,000 Native youth, distributed TOMs shoes, and supported community-wide Thanksgivings meals for more than 10,000 Native youth, families and Elders on 49 reservations.

NRC appreciates Graham Greene for being a light for youth, for inspiring audiences, and for paving the way for indigenous hopefuls who aspire to an acting career.

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Always Remember: Native History Affects Tribes Today

Many events throughout time are milestones in history yet anything but positive for Native American tribes. This video, “Always Remember,” developed by the Herbert Brothers, speaks to the roots of the strained relationship between the 1,000+ Native American tribes and the United States.

In their desire to tell a story unknown to most Americans, yet central to the indigenous people in this country, the Herbert Brothers mark a few significant points in time:

  • 1823 – The law disregards tribal sovereignty. In Johnson v. Macintosh, the first in the infamous Marshall Trilogy, the Supreme Court ruled that Indian tribes could not convey land to private parties without the approval of the federal government. At the time, the federal government’s interpretation was that tribes were not set up as sovereign nations.
  • 1824 – The BIA is born. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun created the BIA without authority of Congress and appointed Thomas L. McKenny as superintendent.
  • 1830 – Indian lands are imperiled. The Indian Removal Act was passed and authorized President Andrew Jackson to negotiate with tribes to give up their land in the east for land in the west. These negotiations, which were not really negotiations at all, resulted in forced removal of tribes from east to west.
  • 1831-1832 – The Marshall Trilogy takes more. In the second and third parts of the Marshall Trilogy (The Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia, and Worcester v. Georgia), the Supreme Court ruled states cannot negotiate a treaty with the tribes – that tribes are sovereign and only the federal government can sign a treaty – and that state laws did not extend into Indian country because they were incompatible with the treaties, the Constitution and laws giving effect to the treaties. This gave the U.S. all the power needed to control the treaties and the tribes, and by the end of 1831, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs was placed under the department of the Secretary of War.
  • 1831-1838 – Many trails of tears ensue. Individual states ignored legislation meant to protect the tribes from illegal maneuvering to usurp the land they occupied and had occupied for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. And this occurred all over the United States as a result of the damaging precedents set by the Marshall lawsuits.
  • 1926:  The failure of U.S. Indian policy is clear. It has been studied, reported and long recognized that the current day poverty among Native Americans is a result of the foregoing laws and policies toward the tribes. But, it wasn’t until 1926 that Secretary of Interior Herman Work recognized U.S. Indian policy had been a failure and commissioned a study on Indian conditions and the effectiveness of the federal administration.
  • 1928:  Indian policy evaluation changes little. The Merriam Report (real title “The Problem of Indian Administration”) opens with this statement: “An overwhelming majority of the Indians are poor, even extremely poor. And, they are not adjusted to the economic and social system of the dominant white culture.” It took 857 pages to tell any person that the Indian policy was not working.

POW-MIA RecognitionThe Merriam Report was the most comprehensive (and only) study to date about the effectiveness of U.S. Indian policy, yet the same issues affect tribes today. Issues like suicide and poverty are affecting over a million Native Americans at this very moment – a direct result of decades of failed policies and generations of mistreatment toward the tribes.

All the while, tribes have continued to be good citizens, to proudly serve as Code Talkers and veterans, and to maintain the highest rate of military service of any ethnic group in the U.S.

So, as we recognize this Veterans Day, and these points in history, we also urge you as the video does to remember does to remember Native Americans. It is important also to remember that the past, even the distant past, is directly linked to what is happening for the tribes today.

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Native Americans Giving Back: Martha Redbone

Not every singer has a voice for blending her upbringing with an echo of mountain holler and values distilled in the South since before America was founded, but one does:  Martha Redbone.

Raised on Appalachian folk music and Piedmont blues, Martha Redbone grew up on Clinch Mountain (in Virginia), in Harlan County, KY and in Brooklyn, NY. Choctaw-Shawnee, Redbone is an unchained talent and sought after collaborator. Establishing her career in London and New York City, she has worked with legends such as Walter “Junie” Morrison (of Ohio Players and P-Funk fame) and Shola Ama (British Grammy winner).

Redbone’s music was strongly influenced by the downhome blues of fellow Kentuckians Jim Ford and Jackie DeShannon – long before her forebears Buffy Sainte-Marie and Rita Coolidge brought Indigenous concerns to rock and roll in the 1970s.

Perhaps best known for “The Garden of Love – The Songs of William Blake,” Martha recorded that album in Nashville. In it, she sets to song the poetry of William Blake, calling up old-timey, rustic Americana, with underpinnings of folk and roots music and acoustic blues, offering up “visions of coal mines, simple living and ancestors living at one with the land.”

While prior releases “Home of the Brave” and “Skintalk” (now part of the permanent collection of contemporary Native music at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)) also explore rhythm and blues, “The Garden of Love” is considered Martha at her best, focusing on vocals and allowing her deep communion with the spirits of her ancestors. Raising her son, losing a mother and aunt, and facing other trials during the writing of this album, it was a 5-year work of art giving voice to these turbulent times. Lyrics like “C’mon, brothers and sisters, and get yourselves back to some semblance of The Garden” give comfort and meaning and appeal to plain folks hungering for a simple truth. It was voted one of the best albums of 2012.

Yet Martha’s contributions don’t stop there. She talks on indigenous rights, the role of arts in politics, and Native identity at universities, and she talks on motivation at reservation grade schools. After the infamous Red Lake shootings, Martha donated 100 “Skintalk” albums to the tribal youth council. For being an exemplary ambassador to Native and African youth for the National HIV/AIDs Partnership, she was recognized by the U.N. with a Red Ribbon Award.

Martha Redbone, pub. by NPR at

Martha Redbone, pub. by NPR at

Currently featured as a popular artist in NMAI’s exhibit, “Up Where We Belong,” Martha holds a Traditional Music Workshop annually in the United Houma Nation (LA), teaching children the music of her Choctaw and Cherokee heritage and integrating the tribe’s Houma-French language. And after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged Houma communities along the Gulf Coast, Martha single-handled generated publicity to raise awareness about the forgotten Gulf tribes, generating over $30,000. She also performed with Floyd Red Crow Westerman and Bonnie Raitt to help raise over $130,000 for the Clyde Bellecourt Scholarship Fund (allowing full-tuition for 12 Native students who have overcome adversity). Finally, as indigenous affairs consultant and creative advisor to the “Man Up Campaign,” she helps eradicate violence against women and girls.

Like Martha, National Relief Charities was there providing disaster relief for the Houma after Katrina and Gustava and Ike. We too are furthering college scholarships for motivated Native American students and supporting programs focused on domestic violence. Last year alone, we helped domestic violence programs on the reservations assist nearly 2,500 participants. National Relief Charities acknowledges Martha Redbone for steadfastly supporting causes she believes in and bringing leadership to Indian country.

“Native Americans Giving Back” is a blog series that features Native American celebrities who are giving back to Indian country and supporting the same types of causes NRC supports. The series will run periodically through year-end 2014 and feature topics from all of NRC’s regular blog writers.

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Native Americans Giving Back: Adam Beach

One man has witnessed first-hand many of the same struggles Native Youth face today, and has found a way to give back, and to give hope:  Adam Beach.

Perhaps best known for his role as Victor in the film, “Smoke Signals,” Adam Beach is an actor, producer and composer. An inspiration to many, Beach is a strong voice for Native American actors, a group underrepresented in the entertainment industry. And, he understands first-hand many of the desperate and depressing issues facing many Native Americans today.

Photo Caption:  Adam Beach, pub. at

Photo Caption: Adam Beach, pub. at

Born Saulteaux on the Dog Creek First Nation Reserve in Canada, Beach witnessed many challenges on the reservation such as poverty, sexual abuse, alcoholism – social challenges that exist in many communities on and off the reservations. In addition, when Adam was eight, both of his parents died – his mother killed by a drunk driver when she was eight months pregnant and his father accidentally drowned only months later. After this, Adam moved to Winnipeg to live with his aunt and uncle and joined the high school theatre group to have fun with his friends. When they decided to move, Adam remained and began seriously to consider acting as a career. With more than 60 Adam Beach films and TV programs dating back to 1990, his choice paid off.

Yet, it is Adam’s off-screen work that is making the biggest difference in the lives of Native Americans. He started the Adam Beach Film Institute to provide resources and training to Aboriginal youth who are interested in pursuing a career within the film industry. He also launched the Adam Beach Foundation to:

“…enhance the awareness of suicide, for the prevention of suicide and also to provide different opportunities to distract the younger generation from losing hope, from thinking that they have nowhere to go or have no ideas to put together.”

Like Adam, National Relief Charities is committed to helping Native Americans address suicide prevention, realize health and hope and live a better tomorrow. In 2013, NRC supported reservation programs for suicide prevention, domestic violence, behavioral health, substance abuse treatment, as well as youth camps, boys and girls clubs, and other programs working to support and inspire Native American youth and families toward healthy and hopeful lifestyles on the reservations.

 “Native Americans Giving Back” is a blog series that features Native American celebrities who are giving back to Indian country and supporting the same types of causes NRC supports. The series will run periodically through year-end 2014 and feature topics from all of NRC’s regular blog writers.

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Native Americans Giving Back: Buffy Sainte-Marie

When it comes to the United States, it is mostly understood that Native Americans were here first. Before it was recorded by the likes of Elvis, Barbara Streisand and Cher, Until It’s Time for You to Go was recorded first by a Native American: Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Cree singer-songwriter, Buffy Sainte-Marie, was breaking ground in the 1960s while the rest of the North American counter-culture was just beginning to wake up. According to her website, the start of Sainte-Marie’s career put her in a unique place “after the beatniks and before the hippies.” Touring colleges, reservations and concert halls throughout the 1960s, Sainte-Marie won acclaim but also undoubtedly shattered audience expectations of Native Americans. She was probably the first Native American many people experienced apart from television or film.

Even after being blacklisted by the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration, Buffy Sainte-Marie continued to gain fame internationally. She could be seen supporting grassroots and activist causes like the American Indian Movement, all the while winning an Academy Award and Golden Globe for her song, Up Where We Belong.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, pub. at

Buffy Sainte-Marie, pub. at

It was 1969 when Buffy focused her activist passion into education. Establishing the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education, her aim was to raise self-identify and self-esteem in generations of Indian children by integrating accurate, enriching information about Native cultures into their learning. Though the Foundation and her Cradleboard project, Buffy also provides cross-cultural training among students and teachers internationally to promote an understanding of Native cultures. Two of the students Buffy sponsored went on to become tribal college presidents who are helping other students reach their full potential. By 1975, her passion spilled over into a five-year run on Sesame Street.

Over the course of her 52-year career, Buffy has earned and continues to earn numerous awards for music, education and the arts. Yet, at the forefront of all this was creating opportunity and improving recognition for Native Americans – a passion that earned her a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Indian College Fund.

Like Buffy, our American Indian Education Foundation (AIEF) shares a commitment to education and strives to create opportunity for Native youth. We believe that education is a key to the long-term challenges facing Indian country. In addition to providing scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students attending universities, tribal colleges, and vocational or technical schools, AIEF partners with Native-serving schools to support retention. Only about 20% of Native Americans who start college complete their first year, but through these partnerships, 95% of AIEF scholarship students complete freshmen year.

On this day and in thinking about Native Americans giving back, we would like to recognize Buffy Sainte-Marie for enriching the lives of Native Americans through education and non-Natives through cultural education. Her work supports not only Native American youth but also tribal futures, as well as AIEF students, partners and donors, and all who care about education.

“Native Americans Giving Back” is a blog series that features Native American celebrities who are giving back to Indian country and supporting the same types of causes NRC supports. The series will run periodically through year-end 2014 and feature topics from all of NRC’s regular blog writers.



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