November 7, 2023

How Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Uplifts Artists and Promotes Visibility

Author Kathryn Kochanowicz, Content Specialist

In Wasco folklore—one of several tribes upon whose ancestral land now sits within modern-day Portland, OR—there is a story called “Coyote Places the Stars.” After ascending into the night sky with his wolf companions and encountering docile bears, he admires the image of the animals sitting together and thinks it’s worth preserving forever. After descending to Earth, Coyote proudly crafts many more celestial images across the sky. Once he’s finished, he calls Meadowlark to him and asks Meadowlark to tell anyone who looks up at his creations and wonders who created them all that it was his handiwork. Meadowlark tells Coyote’s story for the rest of time.

The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF), founded in 2010 and headquartered in Oregon, plays the part of the storyteller Meadowlark today. Mandy Yeahpau (Comanche/Cherokee/Tarahumara), associate director of marketing and communications for NACF, sees the nonprofit’s mission as a responsibility to “uplift and promote Native artists” so their voices may be heard and their cultures preserved.

“I feel like art is the one thing that really connects people,” Yeahpau says, adding, “Especially in these times where we have a lot of polarization in our society, art is one thing that can bring people together.” The NACF has artist fellows representing a variety of fields, such as literary, visual, musical and theatrical arts.

Part of NACF’s support involves awarding grants to Native artists and artisans, enabling the grantees to continue their work unhampered by burdens that money can relieve. Another part of that support is something money can’t buy—community and industry connections. “We also act as a kind of PR firm for them; we’re constantly trying to connect them to other opportunities,” Yeahpau says. “We try to uplift and support in a way that’s beyond financial.”

Raven Chacon (Navajo) is one of NACF’s fellows, and in 2022, he became the first Native American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Musical Composition for his work, Voiceless Mass. Yeahpau considers Chacon a strong example of NACF’s intentionality when it comes to the support they lend artists. “Back on the Navajo Reservation, he’s hosted workshops teaching kids how to compose music. It’s future generations that benefit from artists going back to their reservation and working within their communities. I would say that’s an indigenous tenet, giving back to our communities and to future generations.”

Due to a dearth of sensitive or even factually accurate representation in media, indigenous people often suffer from stereotyping. Stereotypes can be dehumanizing due to their inherent ignorance towards nuance, ensuring the erasure of the individual. Uplifting Native creators brings necessary perspectives and visibility to the general public’s attention.

As a Land Back gesture, a now-dissolved arts nonprofit in Portland offered their facility to NACF, a transformative gift enabling the organization to expand their programming and regional visibility. Center for Native Arts and Cultures hosts exhibitions, classes, theatrical and musical performances and more, establishing themselves as a unique and vital resource for education and cultural conversation.

While some aspects of Native cultural traditions have been lost over time, there are many traditions that remain. The preservation of this cultural knowledge is essential, and grants coming from donor-advised funds (DAFs) play an important role in supporting this mission.

Yeahpau states, “As a national organization, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation has benefited from donor-advised funds that help connect our work with individuals and funders based in areas where we might have limited visibility or philanthropic engagement otherwise. While arts philanthropy continues to grow and change, we appreciate the opportunities that DAFs offer us to build more resources for the Native artists and culture bearers at the heart of our organization’s purpose.”

About the Author

Kathryn Lena Kochanowicz is a Content Specialist at National Philanthropic Trust. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2019 with a degree in English Literature & Creative Writing, and currently resides in Hatboro, PA.