By Venessa Fuentes, in partnership with Wakinyan LaPointe

Wakíŋyaŋ LaPointe is months into a new staff role at Headwaters Foundation for Justice. As Program Officer, Native Communities with deep roots in the local American Indian community, he leads the Fund of the Sacred Circle. The Fund is Headwaters’ longest standing fund and one of several core programs at Headwaters that use a community-led grantmaking model. Also known as participatory grantmaking, this model relies on active, committed participation by the people who live closest to their community’s challenges and opportunities. 

“Too often, we see larger, national foundations and Western philanthropy being led by trustees, boards, staff, and program officers who are not from or familiar with a specific region,” says LaPointe. “Grantmaking at community foundations, when Native-led, offer a more grounded and relational model of philanthropy. In other words, Native-led philanthropy means community-led philanthropy.”

Wakinyan LaPointe (left) is the Program Officer, Native Communities and Venessa Fuentes (right) is the Director of Network and Narrative at Headwaters Foundation. Photo credit: Free Truth Media.

At Headwaters, Native-led philanthropy means inviting Native members from the community to be grantmakers and decision-makers—both in the Fund of the Sacred Circle and across the rest of the Foundation’s core programs. 

LaPointe was inspired to join the staff at Headwaters, in part, because of his lived experiences, both personal and professional. He is a Sicangu Lakota citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and has over a decade of cultural and relational networks from across the region. As a familiar presence in Native-led community foundations, he understands the vital importance of centering local Indigenous knowledge when developing philanthropic efforts that aim to support problem-solving in local Indigenous communities.

“Historically, the act of giving has been at the heart of economic prosperity and self-determination for many Indigenous communities that gave way to lasting intergenerational wealth,” LaPointe shares. “This was especially true of my people, the Lakota people, who continue to carry on ceremonies of giving back to all life. In the Lakota language, Wopila is a ceremony among the Oceti Sakowin (Nations of the Seven Council Fires) of giving thanks and honoring each other’s stories.”

In March, LaPointe recruited a group of community members to lead the 2022 Fund of the Sacred Circle grantmaking process. In addition to being from various Native Nations, grantmakers represented a diversity of professional backgrounds including a communications coordinator, an artist, a nonprofit executive director, and Giving Project cohort alumni. The grantmakers reviewed proposals and made investment decisions using the Fund’s criteria and a culturally infused consensus-building model. In the end, they awarded a total of $760,000 in general operating funds to 19 Native-led organizations across Mnisota. Each grantee received $40,000 ($20,000 per year for two years); Headwaters announced the news late last month. 

A group of participants in Native Governance Center’s Indigenous Leaders in Governance program. Photo credit: Native Governance Center.

When Native-led organizations spoke up about how Headwaters could better support them and their work, Headwaters responded. Director of Program and Grantmaking Melissa Rudnick says, “We heard the call for multi-year, flexible funding and we are honored to be making these investments, guided by the wisdom, leadership, and experience of Native community grantmakers.”  

A Tradition of Philanthropy with a Native Lens 

The Fund of the Sacred Circle invests in Native-led organizations that are committed to justice, self-determination, culture, and sovereignty. Rudnick shares, “The Fund honors and acknowledges Native-led organizations that nurture vibrant, thriving, just communities—both now and for future generations. General operating grants support organizations to focus on work that centers culture, values, and lifeways; Native leadership; connections to land and language; sovereignty and self-determination; and deep community engagement. Flexible funding allows grantees to decide how to spend the funds.”

Staff at Lower Phalen Creek Project, one of the Native-led organizations receiving a Fund of the Sacred Circle grant. Photo Credit: Lower Phalen Creek Project.

Established more than 20 years ago, the Fund continues to influence and inform work happening across all of Headwaters. In addition, the Fund’s name carries significant cultural meaning and holds many interpretations. LaPointe shares, “In the Lakota worldview, the cangleska wakan (sacred circle) represents the interconnectedness and inherent sacredness of all life. Everything that we do impacts the cangleska wakan. Headwaters honors this value by acknowledging that we can only strengthen the cangleska wakan together, not by using a top-down approach. Relying on the wisdom of Native community is a key element of how Fund of the Sacred Circle works.”

Staff at Little Earth Residents Association, one of the Native-led organizations receiving a Fund of the Sacred Circle grant. Photo credit: Little Earth Residents Association.

Today, Headwaters celebrates both the legacy and future of Native community members and movement organizations through the Fund of the Sacred Circle. In fact, staff across the Foundation say they know that $760,000 in grant awards is only the beginning. 

Learn more about the Fund of the Sacred Circle, including its 2022 grantee organizations and grantmakers.

Author Bios

Venessa Fuentes is the Director of Network and Narrative at Headwaters. She’s charged with leading Foundation-wide storytelling and communications strategies that further amplify our mission and values. In addition to her professional role, Fuentes is an artist activist, cultural producer, and obsessed with using the power of words to get free. 

Headwaters Program Officer, Native Communities Wakíŋyaŋ LaPointe is a Sicangu Lakota citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. He is an Indigenous human rights advocate to the United Nations, and community cultural consultant. He will be graduating with a Master of Nonprofit Management from Hamline University and is an incoming Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. LaPointe is a Wicasha Olowan (Lakota singer) and Woyake Wichasa (Storyteller).