By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015

Through this series, we highlight the extraordinary people who serve as First Peoples Fund’s board of directors. They are the culture bearers and leaders from national nonprofits within and beyond Indian Country who graciously guide First Peoples Fund and strengthen the Collective Spirit®.


Originally from South Dakota, Sherry Salway Black (Oglala Lakota) has worked for more than 40 years in American Indian issues at the American Indian Policy Review Commission, Indian Health Service, First Nations Development Institute, and with the National Congress of American Indians.  

She has also served or is serving on boards and committees for the following works: Johnson Scholarship Foundation; Prosperity Now (formerly CFED); First Peoples Fund; the Hitachi Foundation; Honoring Contributions in the Governance of Tribal Nations of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development; the Council on Foundations; First Nations Development Institute and Oweesta Corporation; American Indian Business Leaders; Native Americans in Philanthropy; the Hopi Education Endowment Fund; Trillium Asset Management Corporation; Women and Philanthropy; President Obama’s Advisory Committee on Financial Capability and the President’s Advisory Committee on Financial Capability for Young Americans.

Sherry has a master’s of business administration degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s from East Stroudsburg University where in 2013 she received the Distinguished Alumni Award. In 2016, Sherry received a Special Distinguished Leadership Award from the National Congress of American Indians.  



Sherry, we appreciate your taking time for this Q&A. Who taught you the values you hold closest? What role did that person play in your life and what lessons did you learn from them?

I don’t think it’s any one person. We’re so affected by many people. My parents came first in terms of basic values that I hold. And also friends throughout my whole life. Teachers I’ve had. People I’ve worked with, like Lori Pourier. We started working together back in 1985 at the First Nations Financial Project, which is now First Nations Development Institute. That work with First Nations taught not only about honesty, but reciprocity. It’s such a critical value, especially in this work that we do. It’s that doing a good job for a good cause, and giving back is an important part of that.


What professional accomplishment do you believe says the most about who you are and what’s important to you?

I’m going to answer this question in two parts. The first part ties in Lori and First Nations Development Institute again. I believe the work has done so much good in Indian country through grant making, research, and policy change. We helped start the movement for Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs). It’s great, just knowing these organizations exist for Indian country and that I was a part of that.

The second part would be in seeing the people I’ve worked with and often mentored and how well they’re doing. And the fact that they’re helping in Native communities as well.


How long have you served on the First Peoples Fund board and why did you get involved?

I joined the board in 2008, and have served as Chairperson since 2010.

I got involved because of Lori Pourier. Lori started slightly before me at First Nations, and we worked together many years. She left sometime in the 90s, and I left in the 2000s. We stayed in touch.

I think some of what First Peoples Fund does grew out of the work at First Nations. Not all of it, but some. The fact that arts and culture are such a critical part of Native communities is sometimes overlooked in development efforts. Some of the early curriculum that was used to work with artists (at FPF) was developed at First Nations in the early 90s. We did grant making to arts related groups at that time.

I’ve always admired Lori and how focused she has been on that sector. That’s why I’m on the board. Can’t say no to Lori! [Laughs]


What are the most significant challenges Native nonprofits face?

There are a couple. One challenge that often arises for Native nonprofits is being taken seriously. I’ve done a lot of working with Native nonprofits over the years, working with foundations and especially ones with Native women at the head of them. I won’t say that I know this applies across the board to all women, all minority women, but I know it does for Native women. Your organizations don’t rank up there with some of the big non-Native nonprofits, especially if they’re headed by women. They think it’s a “cute little project.”

Words make a difference. For example, First Nations was called First Nations Financial Project until 1990. Ten years of working, ten years of raising funds from foundations, and we finally acknowledged we weren’t a project anymore. We were an Institute. We needed to frame the work differently, using those words to gain notice.

The other challenge all nonprofits face is securing the resources they need to do their job.


What has First Peoples Fund done to overcome those challenges?

Doing good work. That has to come first. Then consistency. Being visible, being involved, being at the table. I have a friend who says, “If we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu.”

Lori is at the table in conversations where she needs to be. She has longevity in the field. She knows the Native arts and culture area. She has the knowledge that people turn to.  

Having people like Lori involved in an organization is important. You have some nonprofits, regardless of whether they’re Native or non, who don’t have consistency in leadership, who are ever-changing.


What do you wish other people knew about First Peoples Fund?

I had an example of this the other day. [Laughs] A friend, who has known Lori and me for a long time, and who I thought knew First Peoples Fund, said, “You know, they ([FPF] should train artists in business practices.”

I said, “They do! They have this curriculum, Native Artists Professional Development Training. They do workshops, and they train the success coaches at Native CDFIs to help artists in business. What do you think they’ve been doing?” [Laughs]


How do you see First Peoples Fund changing lives and communities?

First of all, by recognizing arts as integral to who we are as a people. Sometimes we get carried away with some of the mechanics of the economy and government, and don’t recognize that art and culture are who we are as a people and to focus on that.

I think First Peoples Fund has really changed that. Helping people understand how to better their lives, and helping people with information and knowledge is so critical. One of the things we did religiously at First Nations that has carried over to First Peoples Fund was connect groups with other groups, people with other people. It’s such an important element.

That’s how I think First Peoples Fund works — bringing people together, sharing information and resources.