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Native Chiefs & Leaders: Chief Joseph

Pub. at (emphasis added), 1890

Pub. at (emphasis added), 1890

Chief Joseph was the leader of the Nez Perce tribe during a time of great conflict and upheaval. He was born in 1840 in Oregon Territory and assumed the role of Chief after the death of his father in 1871. ”Nez Perce” was the name given to the tribe by a French Canadian interpreter with the 1805 Lewis and Clark Expedition. The tribe’s traditional name is Nimi’ipuu, which means “real people.” It serves them well as you look at their history.

Chief Joseph spoke of his tribe’s first encounter with white people, indicating that Lewis and Clark had been respectful and honest while passing through their lands.

The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clark. They brought many things which our people had never seen. They talked straight and our people gave them a great feast as proof that their hearts were friendly.

This was a far cry from the relationship Chief Joseph had experienced between the United States and the Nez Perce. His father made a treaty with the U.S. in 1855 reserving a large amount of land for the Nez Perce to live upon, but in 1863, the Gold Rush induced the U.S. to take back nearly 6 million acres and to allot a new, much smaller reservation for the tribe in Idaho. Chief Joseph’s father refused to move, remaining in the Wallowa Valley in Oregon territory as hundreds and hundreds of settlers continued to flood the Wallowa Valley. After Chief Joseph’s father died in 1871, the U.S. pressured all of the Nez Perce to move. The situation was incredibly volatile and violence seemed imminent.

Like his father, Chief Joseph had no desire to relocate to Idaho but did not want his people to suffer, starve, or be killed outright by the U.S. cavalry, which in 1877 threatened to move them forcefully to Idaho. So he agreed, but then some younger warriors attacked the settlers out of anger and 2,000 U.S. soldiers began to retaliate. Over 4 months and 1,400 miles, the Nez Perce forced what many at the time called the greatest military retreat in history. It ended just 40 miles from the Canadian border with the band surrounded and exhausted, but the bravery and fortitude of the Nez Perce elicited admiration even among staunchly unsympathetic counterparts.

There were just too many soldiers and Chief Joseph was tired of battles that chipped away at tribal members. He wanted peace for his people and safety for the women and children. He wanted them to live. So, on October 5, 1877, he formally surrendered, uttering this now famous quote:

Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.

Chief Joseph died in 1904, after being relocated several times by the U.S. and never returning to his homeland in the Wallowa Valley. His doctor said he died of a broken heart.

Chief Joseph was a man. He was also leader. And when you combine the two, you get a very human outcome. He wanted the best for his people, yet he wanted the U.S. to be respectful and honest, like Lewis and Clark had been, never taking more than they needed and giving equally in return. Perhaps he was an idealist, a human being that saw the potential for fairness, honesty, and equality. Ultimately, as history has recorded, Chief Joseph was a man of great integrity and foresight. He worked tirelessly to give his people what they had lost – the space and freedom to live as they had before the broken promises. And to this end, he came so close… 40 miles more and the history books may have been written quite differently.

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Native Video Series: “Indian Education”

We have an educational system that continues to fail Native people big time… Recruiting students isn’t the problem. Once they’re there at the institution, we still struggle with meeting the needs.
– David Isham, Minnesota College and University System

Native American students face many obstacles in achieving an education. Often, Native students who attend public schools are not provided the resources mandated under Title VII of the Leave No Child Behind Act. Although a federal law governs what is supposed to happen to Native kids that are taken in by the public foster care system – the Indian Child Welfare Act – but reportedly no state is in full compliance with this act. The Indian education system continues to show an achievement gap for Native students that has lasted for decades and goes beyond grade school. In this video, educators and the Bureau of Indian Education come together in the hopes of creating change.

This video first aired in January 2012 after the American Indian Education Summit in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Native American Elders have always said that the children are the future. Some say education is the answer and education must be the priority. National Relief Charities agrees and for this reason we invest a large amount of resources toward Indian education each year.

We’d love to hear what you think… 
Is education the answer for a better future in Indian country?
Why do you think the achievement gap exists in Indian education?
What do you think would help Indian children be more successful in school?

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Native American Film Series: “Imprint”

I’m looking up definitions of the word “imprint” but not finding a meaning like the one used in the film named Imprint.  Maybe, like a lot of things related to Native American culture, the meaning I’m looking for isn’t going to be found online or in any book.

The movie, Imprint (2007) written by Michael Linn and produced by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho) is sort of like that, hard to define. The third entry in our Native American film series, Imprint is a contemporary story like Smoke Signals and Barking Water but is set apart by what some would call a “supernatural” story. Yet, to think of Imprint only as a supernatural thriller would be missing out on its deeper meaning.

Pine Ridg signage (8)For Shayla Stonefeather, a rising Native American lawyer played by Tonantzin Carmelo (Tongva/Kumeyaay), life takes a dark but necessary turn after she successfully prosecutes a young Native American man for murder in Denver, Colorado. Among protest and feelings of betrayal from the Native Denver community, Shayla leaves for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (where most of the film was shot) to celebrate her ill father’s birthday.

While the opening court case serves to get the film moving, there are some significant and powerful things happening in that scene. There is Shayla’s inner struggle brought about by prosecuting another Native American in the system of the dominant culture. And there is the greater stress of Shayla losing herself as a cultural minority while achieving success in mainstream society.

Upon arrival to her parents’ home, Shayla begins experiencing visions that she can only connect to a disturbing past… a past related to her father’s illness and her brother’s disappearance. Or, so she thinks. Shayla’s mother has a medicine man purify their home after one of Shayla’s visions. After this, Shayla is confronted by a part of her culture from which she has long has been disconnected and, through this experience, doors to understanding begin to open. The medicine man shares with Shayla an important aspect of Lakota knowledge:

“Past, present, and future all touch one another.”

Past, present and future are imprinted on the land and within our collective and individual memories. These imprints ultimately help Shayla understand her visions and the mystery behind them.

Imprint often shows us the things our lives need in silent, but powerful ways. Like Shayla, sometimes we all need to make a journey “home.” I hope you will watch the film and let me know what you take away from it.

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Poverty Line or Breaking Point?

My tribe is rich in traditions and culture. We share a unity that many people long for within their families and communities. We also share a pervasive need on the reservation that can make every day a quiet crisis. We prioritize whichever need is most urgent. It takes perseverance. We have a mom-and-pop grocery store and are 70 miles from a drugstore. But, I greet each day with a good heart and an unfaltering sense of hope.

This message from one of our White Mountain Apache partners speaks volumes. Whenever poverty is in the picture, day-to-day challenges can seem larger than life. Did you know:

  • 8 of the 10 poorest U.S. counties are home to Indian reservations
  • Joblessness (lack of available jobs) is a major challenge on the reservations
  • 29% of employed Native Americans live below poverty level

The cause of poverty in Indian country is systemic (stemming from policies and history) – and the symptoms that poverty creates are pervasive. It’s not just a need for healthy food… it’s a need for healthy food, healthcare, education, housing, transportation, jobs, and every physical need in life… with one need compounding the next. This video from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development does a good job of explaining what this is like.

Copyright © 2012 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Please visit online at


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Native American Chiefs & Leaders Series: Pontiac

The great Ottawa leader, Pontiac, is an enigma of sorts. Little is known about his birth, the when and where, and speculation surrounds much of his life up until 1763. But in my view, this much is known: Pontiac cared about his people and got others to care enough to do the right thing. And, Pontiac is generally admired as the mastermind behind the plan for what became known as Pontiac’s War of 1763-1764. It was a war waged by many tribes of the Great Lakes region.

Pub. by at

Pub. by at

After the French lost the Seven Years War and abandoned their forts to the British, Pontiac had become discouraged. British at the time were feeling very differently about trade with Native Americans. They had begun to eliminate trade visits to the forts and to treat the local tribes with contempt. This destructive relationship became a powder keg for violence as many tribal leaders, Pontiac included, saw the British setting an irreversible course… a course with only more usurping of land and pushing the tribes further West or destroying them altogether.

Pontiac felt a sense of urgency to salvage the way of life that had existed for centuries. Even though it was tribal land on which the British were settling and prospering, the British had begun paying French fur traders instead of Natives and working to push Great Lakes tribes out of the picture completely. In response to his feelings of despair and anger toward less than honorable British intentions, Pontiac stated:

It is important for us, my brothers, that we exterminate from our lands this nation which seeks only to destroy us. You see as well as I that we can no longer supply our needs, as we have done from our brothers, the French…. Therefore, my brothers, we must all swear their destruction and wait no longer. Nothing prevents us; they are few in numbers, and we can accomplish it.

“Pontiac’s War” was successful in that it created a sense of unprecedented unity among tribes all over the Great Lakes region. It also forced the British to seek the 1766 treaty of peace and nonviolence with Pontiac, as the Ottawa leader’s influence continued to grow even after the war had ended.

Although much mystery surrounds Pontiac (with the exception of his life from 1763 to his death in 1769), I have this unquestionable sense of who he was as a human being. Pontiac was a man, a leader, that cared about what would happen to his people… and not just his people, but all of the tribes in the Great Lakes region. Moreover, he caused those tribes to care enough to join him in what was likely to be a violent and costly endeavor against the British. But, Pontiac did this out of conviction about doing what was right for his people… those Ottawa people who were just as human as the British and deserved just as much respect and humane treatment as the British or anyone else.

So, even in today’s times, I think we can take away something useful from all of this. Each of us can look at the man, Pontiac, and see a little of ourselves in him. We can all relate, I believe, to that sense of doing what is right when something is so wrong, no matter the cost.

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Native Video Series: “Don’t Get Sick after June”

While many people believe Native Americans receive free healthcare, Native Americans have said, “We would not wish Indian healthcare on anyone.” Few people realize that Congress grossly underfunds the Indian Health Service (I.H.S.) or that I.H.S. routinely runs out of funds mid-year. Indian healthcare is not a welfare program but a treaty obligation to the tribes. Yet, program partners have shared with us that when I.H.S. runs out of funds, tribal members are able to receive care only for “life and limb” emergencies. They are unable to be referred off-reservation for specialty services the I.H.S. cannot provide such as cancer treatment, and unable to be transported to or from the reservations for those and other referrals. The watchword for Indian healthcare is “Don’t Get Sick After June,” as this video accurately portrays. The video first aired on Fox News in April 2011.

The new Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Health Insurance Marketplace is a gain for Indian healthcare. Under ACA, enrolled members of federally-recognized tribes will benefit from these changes:

  • Higher access to healthcare
  • Lower health insurance premiums
  • Removal of co-pays (and possibly other out-of-pocket costs) for services covered under their Marketplace plan, if income is less than $34,470 per year ($70,650 for a family of 4)
  • Exemption from the federal requirement to maintain minimum health insurance coverage, if eligible for I.H.S. healthcare
  • More funds available for healthcare, as health insurance will pay for health services (Formerly, Contract Health Services paid via I.H.S. Now, I.H.S. is the payer of last resort.)
  • Exemption from the open enrollment deadline in the Health Insurance Marketplace
  • Ability to change enrollment status through the Marketplace once a month

These benefits co-exist with permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA) under a 2012 Supreme Court decision, and the long-needed strengthening of I.H.S.  New I.H.S. programming aims at raising the health status of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Another change spawned by ACA and affecting Native Americans is the expansion of North Dakota Medicaid. Native Americans represent 18% of the states’ uninsured population.

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Native American Film Series: “Barking Water”

A man lays in a hospital bed dying. Sitting next to him, a woman flips through old photographs. Somewhere in a vision the man is petting a horse. Somewhere else there is a flowing river. The man and woman both look weathered, hardened by a life together and apart. In the hall outside their hospital room is a reflection of their lives: the day-to-day, the waiting, the heartbreak and the leaving. The leaving is where the story begins in the film, Barking Water, by Director Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Creek).

Native Film - Barking Water 2For the man, Frankie, the journey is about preparing for his inevitable death and the importance of making it home before he dies. For the woman, Irene, she is all that Frankie has despite how he may have wronged her. Yet, Irene isn’t without fault. This is a story about people, after all.

Out of money and far from home, Frankie and Irene rely on the help of friends, family and strangers along the way. Call them favors owed, favors returned, or favors paid forward. It isn’t a concept too unfamiliar to life in Indian country. In a place where resources can be limited, people call on each other in their time of need. Perhaps it may be a few dollars, a ride to town, something to eat, or a place to stay, but what it really is about is holding each other up. Part of Irene’s journey is returning the favor.

Love can do that to a person. We are all traveling somewhere. Despite our individual journeys, sometimes we travel the same road together. We call it love. And, it’s a funny thing… Frankie and Irene have travelled together and they have travelled apart. Journeys can be like that.

With Frankie’s terminal diagnosis, they find themselves on the same road again and, despite being a new part of their journey, their history remains… their old hurt, their old ways, their old love. In any relationship, we all do our share of help and harm to others. This is pretty evident in Frankie and Irene’s love.

Native Film - Barking Water 1Place is a part of love too… the place we call home, the place where we fell in love, the place we associate with our ancestors and family, the place we remember in our time of dying. In the end, sometimes we have to journey back to our beginning. Even though these places, in this case the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, may also be associated with hurt and loss, they carry too much importance to deny in our hearts.

Barking Water gets it. Not only does Barking Water get the love and places we relate to as Native Americans and human beings, but it also gets the way we live. Frankie and Irene are common people facing common struggles. They walk with truth, quiet humility, and strength. We can assume that their experiences as Native Americans shape their characters – but Barking Water doesn’t get involved in dramatizations or stereotypes of contemporary reservations or Indian people. It is not that kind of film. Rather, it is a story about real people, people who happen to be Native American, on a journey to which we can all relate. I highly recommend that you check out Barking Water.

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Firewood Collaboration, Tecumseh Style

Murray’s blog on Tecumseh reminded me of an amazing collaboration project with the National Guard, U.S. Forest Service, Crow Creek Tribe and National Relief Charities (NRC). The project bears out Tecumseh’s wisdom about uniting for a cause and doing more together than we can do individually.

Firewood Collaboration 1NRC spotted in a regional newspaper that the South Dakota National Guard sponsors an annual “Golden Coyote” operation as a training exercise for members of the National Guard, Air Force, Army and Navy from across the country. These military units gain skills in teamwork and coordination, working in cross-cultural communities, and general operation readiness, all while performing a community service.

Like National Relief Charities, the SD National Guard also distributes firewood on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Guard works in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service to gather and deliver downed wood from the Black Hills National Forest. However, they work with outside resources for delivery and coordinate directly with recipients for scheduling.

NRC initiated a collaboration with the Guard and Forest Service to enhance the collective winter fuel efforts beyond what each group was doing separately. NRC’s part in the collaboration was identifying other reservations in South Dakota in need of wood, and then working through our Program Partners on the reservations to determine who could stockpile the wood and plan and host an orderly distribution. NRC selected the Crow Creek and Cheyenne River Reservations for this project.

Prior to the distribution, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe took an interesting environmental step. Typically, the downed wood is a result of beetles or other environmental causes. The tribe’s environmental inspector was able to ensure that bringing the downed wood into their community would not also bring the risk of beetle infestation. Given the green light on this, the project was a go!

Firewood Collaboration 2When all was said and done, more than 535 cords of wood were delivered to the tribes last June. The tribes plan to use the trees for firewood, fence posts, and ceremonial purposes. In addition, important introductions and connections were made that will serve these tribes in winters to come. And, there is much social justice in wood from the Black Hills going to Sioux tribes in South Dakota. Here is one of the many nice thank you’s NRC received from this high-impact program:

On behalf of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, we would like to thank all the entities that were involved with the hauling and delivering the wood to our tribe. It has been greatly appreciated by the members of our communities. We have begun using some of the wood for our sun dance ceremonies, Tipi poles, sweat lodge ceremonies, fence posts, cooking stoves and saved some for winter heating.

We will be looking forward to working with all the entities on an annual basis for years to come. This project is going to help our Tribe with teaching our youth on keeping up with our traditional values, on how to build tipi’s and understand our sweats and sun dance ceremonies. We appreciate your generosity to our Tribe.

Brandon Sazue
Crow Creek Sioux Tribal Chairman


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Native American Chiefs & Leaders Series: Tecumseh

Welcome back, NRC Blog readers. There is so much popular interest in Native American history and wisdom that I am starting a new blog series called “Native Chiefs & Leaders.” The series will run on the third Tuesday of each month and cover lessons learned from leaders such as Black Elk, Chief Joseph, Pontiac, Cochise, and Crazy Horse. I begin the series today with Tecumseh.

“A single twig breaks, but the bundle of twigs is strong.”

These are words spoken by Chief Tecumseh, a Shawnee warrior who was a great orator and a fine leader. Tecumseh had the ability to bring tribes together and the ability to create respect among his contemporaries, Native American and white as well as ally and foe. Tecumseh’s words were revered as being honest and from his heart, yet tempered with sometimes biting honesty at the way he believed circumstances should be and the way they were.

Tecumseh, public domain pub. at

Tecumseh, public domain pub. at

It is the “single twig” quote that I find so very valuable because it rings just as true today as it did in the early 1800s. Tecumseh realized that the numerous Native American tribes in and around the Ohio River valley were much stronger as a united “bundle of twigs” against the American militia of the time. He understood that most anything is stronger and able to withstand external pressure when reinforced with other allies that share similar values and beliefs.

Tecumseh experienced a lifetime of strife as the edge of the United States kept expanding into what had been Native American lands. His father was killed in a battle in West Virginia with state militia as they pushed west, and Tecumseh himself had to move several times while growing up as their settlements pushed them further and further west.

During the War of 1812, Tecumseh felt he would be better served to assist the British in their fight against the U.S. (To this point, my own great, great grandfather also fought against the U.S. in this same war.)  Tecumseh believed the U.S. would never honor a treaty and that it was not possible for a treaty – words on paper – to keep the whites from encroaching on and stealing their lands whenever they saw fit.

To this end, Tecumseh stood for the principle of doing what was right:  fighting to protect the U.S. from continuing to take Native American lands while violently killing their previous inhabitants or simply forcing them farther and farther westward. Tecumseh used his oratory skills to successfully unite many tribes against the U.S. He continued speaking out against the way tribes were treated by the U.S. until his death at the 1813 Battle of the Thames in Canada (during the war).

Pub. at

Pub. at

While Tecumseh was as much a human being as any one of us, he possessed a very special talent for speaking about matters in a way that transcended ethnicity or alliances and simply reverberated as human.

Tecumseh’s main legend was that by coming together, uniting for a noble and just cause, you can accomplish so much more, and be stronger, and able to withstand much more as a collective than as a singular person or entity… That when you come together “as a bundle of twigs” you are strengthened not just in physical fortitude but also in spirit… That you become the sum of your parts.

Applying Tecumseh’s viewpoint and way of life today, we can all look for opportunities to unite and work together, to see and use the best in all of us for the greater good, in business and in life.

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Native Video Series: Dakota Life / Native Gardens

The new Farm Bill is a boost to agriculture but comes with a price that will hurt Native Americans and other U.S. families and leave nutrition experts worried about the end result.

  • President Obama will soon sign into law an $8 billion cut to food stamps over the next 10 years. Now known as SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), food stamps are said to be the largest “domestic hunger safety net,” assisting millions of low-income individuals and families. The cuts to EBT food stamps will affect 20% of American Indian households, according to the National Congress of American Indians.  SNAP cuts will affect 540,000 Native Americans every month, according to federal estimates.
  • Another federal program known as FDPIR (Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations) distributes USDA foods through the tribes to low-income families on reservations. The 2013 federal shutdown and new federal rules drove up FDPIR participation by tribes. Now, roughly half of federally recognized tribes participate: 275 of 566. FDPIR cuts will affect about 80,000 Native American households every month.
  • Households may not participate in DFPIR and SNAP in the same month – and both programs have been cut. Nutrition-related disease rates for Native Americans already surpass those of other ethnic groups in the U.S. Where does it end?

Other dietary changes forced on Native Americans are revealed in this video, Dakota Life – Native Gardens. In it, Aubrey Skye of the Standing Rock Reservation and a Program Partner for our Project Grow initiative, talks about nutrition, obesity and diabetes and how it all started for indigenous peoples. The video first aired on South Dakota PBS in January, 2011.

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