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®.



Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache). Image by Thosh Collins with permission from the Sundance Institute. 

Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache). Image by Thosh Collins with permission from the Sundance Institute. 

Born of the Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache peoples, Bird Runningwater was raised on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico.

Since 2001, he has guided the Sundance Institute’s investment in Native American and Indigenous screenwriters, directors, and producers while building a global Indigenous film community. He has nurtured a new generation of filmmakers whose films have put Native cinema on the cultural map.


Before joining Sundance Institute, Runningwater served as executive director of the Fund of the Four Directions, the private philanthropy organization of a Rockefeller family member. He served as program associate in the Ford Foundation’s Media, Arts, and Culture Program, where he built and managed domestic and global funding initiatives. Bird currently serves as a patron to the imagineNative Indigenous Film Festival in Toronto.

A recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s National Fellowship in Public Policy and International Affairs, Bird is also an alumnus of Americans for Indian Opportunity’s Ambassadors Program and the Kellogg Fellows Program.

Based in Los Angeles, Bird serves as the director of Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program. He oversees the NativeLab Film Fellowship, the Time Warner Native Producers Fellowship, the Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum, the Full Circle Initiative and was recently appointed to spearhead the Institute’s Diversity work across all programs.



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?

My Cheyenne maternal grandmother Mariam Mann Twins who raised me for most of my childhood. She was a master beadworker, and I helped her making moccasins and buckskin dresses for family members while growing up.  She instilled in me a sense of love, language, pride, and generosity.


Do you consider yourself an artist? What is your art form? What is your proudest creative achievement?

Yes, beadworking. Making the buckskin dress for one of my female relatives for her Mescalero Apache puberty ceremony.


How did you come to know about First Peoples Fund?

My relationship with First Peoples Fund goes back to my relationship with Lori [Pourier, FPF President and CEO]. I’ve known Lori for over 20 years, and we’ve always been good friends. Lori and I are connected through LaDonna Harris (Comanche) with the Americans for Indian Opportunity Ambassadors program.


How have you been involved with the Rolling Rez Arts Mobile Unit?

I went to the bus on Pine Ridge and brought films to screen. I also brought in one of our alumni fellows, Razelle Benally (Oglala Lakota/Diné), to talk and show one of her films. [Razelle is a 2017 FPF Artists in Business Leadership fellow.]


How do you see First Peoples Fund impacting Native artists, including filmmakers?

Storytelling in filmmaking is definitely a growing tradition in Native communities, especially over the past 20 years. I hope First Peoples Fund will support filmmakers, especially coming from the region of the country where the organization is based.

At Sundance Film Festival every year we get a handful of films about Pine Ridge that are trying to tell the Pine Ridge story, but they are being produced by outsiders. None of these films is being made about this particular place or people by people from that community.

Collaborating on the Rolling Rez Arts bus was an attempt to plant seeds of filmmaking and storytelling with local people, to let them know that they should be telling their own story rather than having other people try to tell it for them.


What do you wish people knew about First Peoples Fund?

The breadth and depth of support of Native Artists from the Great Plains and nationally.


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

By nurturing sustainable artist careers, the work of First Peoples Fund is allowing artists to stay in their communities rather than relocating away from home in order to be successful.