When Rebecca Adamson was 22 years old and had just started working for the Coalition of Indian Controlled School Boards, she was sent to evaluate a school in Hammon, Oklahoma. “The first thing the principal said to me was they’d been open since 1943 and [had] never graduated an Indian student,” Adamson says in a video on the website of Makers: Women Who Make America, a PBS series that showcases women who are making history in the arts, business, education, sports, science and political activism. Then she was taken on a tour of the school and saw something grotesque. “All the Indian kids had this white adhesive, this surgical tape over their mouths. And I just stopped cold. And I went up to the teacher and said, ‘What are you doing?’ and she said, ‘Everyone knows that Indians are savages, they disrupt the class.’ ” Soon afterward, Adamson and her colleagues on the Coalition pulled all the Indian kids out and started an Indian school.
That was in 1972. Adamson, a Cherokee economist, savvy entrepreneur, visionary leader, co-author of The Color of Wealth, activist and founder of First Nations Development Institute and First Peoples Worldwide, a grant-making advocacy organization, has spent the decades since then working to give Indian tribes in the United States and Indigenous Peoples all over the world a voice in controlling their destinies.
And she has won numerous awards along the way, including the 2004 Schwab Outstanding Social Entrepreneur and a Doctor in Humane Letters degree from Dartmouth College. Most recently, Adamson was named one of America’s most influential women as part of Makers: Women Who Make America. Among Adamson’s co-Makers are some of the most powerful women in the world—Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—but Adamson wears her power lightly. “I come from a matrilineal society and having women be a source of power was there in my DNA,” she says.
Born in Akron, Ohio, to a Swedish American father and a Cherokee mother, Adamson spent summers with her Cherokee grandmother in North Carolina, where she learned about Cherokee history and culture. She also learned the differences in knowledge between herself and her cousins. “They knew how to catch the crayfish, they knew where the fox dens were, but they couldn’t read a ruler, couldn’t do fractions. I knew something was wrong because my cousins were smart.”
These early experiences and her work with the Coalition of Indian Controlled Schools in the early 1970s during President Richard Nixon’s new self-determination policy for Indian nations launched Adamson into her lifelong work: helping American Indians and later Indigenous Peoples globally to achieve and exercise self-determination.
Since self-determination goes hand-in-hand with economic independence, Adamson started the First Nations Development Institute in 1980 that established the first reservation-based microenterprise loan fund the U.S. First Peoples Worldwide, a grant-making nonprofit organization, began as a program of First Nations in 1997 and in 2005 Adamson and her daughter Neva transformed it into a full-fledged organization in its own right. First Peoples Worldwide focuses on funding local development projects in indigenous communities all over the world and creating bridges between the communities and corporations, governments, academics, other nongovernmental organizations and investors in their regions.
Buried in the information-dense First Peoples Worldwide website is a quiet little statement that epitomizes the organization’s philosophy: “We specialize in culturally appropriate development and progress without assimilation.” That’s crucial right now with the focus on developing extractive industries on or through indigenous territories that can devastate the land, contaminate water supplies and destroy communities.
“We’ve got a richness and a diversity of voices in Indian country, so we don’t go in [to a tribe or community] and make decisions nor do we go in with an agenda like, ‘Oh, we want you to be anti-reduction and anti-emissions or this or that,” Adamson says. “We go in and say, ‘What is it that you want to do?’… Our fundamental belief in our little narrow piece of what we’re trying to do is [reverse] assimilation—it’s changing the business model so that it reflects indigenous decision-making. And that can change a lot of things.”
Adamson was recently appointment by the Obama administration to a three-year term on the U.S. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Advisory Committee. The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is a global effort to increase the transparency and accountability of natural resource revenue reporting. Participating governments are required to disclose all revenues from oil, gas and mining companies, while companies are required to disclose these same payments to governments. The committee will guide and oversee the U.S. government’s implementation of the initiative. Adamson said she’s hopeful that the initiative will provide an opportunity for change.
“I’ve been around too long to think it’s going to be a solution, but if we can open up more information around how the companies work and the phenomenal amount of money that flows into this situation, I think there’s a way we can begin to affect the business model,” she says. She hopes to convene two meetings. “What I hope to do is working with the National Congress of American Indians or on our own is get the energy tribes together with indigenous folks from elsewhere who are dealing with the same things and get their input into this transparency issue.
“I think if we work together as Indigenous Peoples—and I mean globally—we can change the way business is done.”
First Peoples Worldwide’s research and its work with financial research companies support Adamson’s theory about the power Native people could wield collectively. The research shows 80 percent of all the remaining biodiversity is located on and beneath indigenous lands. In addition, the Russell 1000 Index and experts in responsible investment found 250 large-cap companies with medium- to high-risk exposure to Indigenous Peoples rights and $2.7 trillion tied up on indigenous lands. The risk involves indigenous claims under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and some of the corporations on policies of consultation and consent. “If they haven’t followed the consultation and ‘free, prior and informed consent’ under the declaration, they are completely at risk for protest, demonstrations, road blocks, work stoppage,” she says.
So what’s stopping Indigenous Peoples from exerting this power? Divisive politics. “I just really hate to see the kind of divisive politics we get ourselves caught up in. The work’s already hard. We’re already struggling against monumental obstacles,” she says. “If Indians could get together, they could negotiate fairer deals, equity positions in the company operating on their lands, if you want to. But if you don’t want to, that’s okay too. We also work with the social investors who will pull their money out, they’ll disinvest, they’ll go to bat for tribes who don’t want someone on their land, but if you do, then let’s get the best deal.”
Adamson sees opportunity for change and believes people are ready. No one trusts governments anymore, and corporations aren’t necessarily better, but if you can educate them that it’s in their interest, they’ll do the right thing, she says: “We convinced Shell that it was in their best interest to give us a million dollars to make grants to communities. What we did basically was make a series of free, prior and informed consent grants. We told Shell it would help if you go into a community; and they’ve already gotten together with their traditional government, their opinion makers, their elected government and they’re already worked out how this mix comes together to make decision. I said that’s key in our communities, and it would be to Shell’s advantage to fund that.”
In a very real way, Adamson has developed from a grassroots, on-the-street activist to a diplomatic activist dealing with international corporations. She even attends board meetings of some of the largest multinational corporations. “This is becoming such a big issue that these guys are inviting me into the board rooms, not that it means changing anything immediately.” Other nongovernmental indigenous organizations consult with corporations and tribes but First Peoples Worldwide is unique in its direct action. “Our whole organization strategy is we make small local grants so that we can be tied very directly to the communities to make sure that their voice is what gets into the board room,” Adamson says. But the politics can be paradoxical. “We can get chewed on by the activist groups who want a moratorium on fossil fuel, or we can get caught up with an elected council that thinks we represent the activists. But we don’t take a stand. We want to make it very clear that you have the right to make the decision—that’s our stand. Then if you say yes, it looks like we’re pro-development; and if you say no, it looks like we’re anti-development.
“We’re just pro-indigenous.”