Five Questions with Jennifer Easton

Founder of First Peoples Fund

Jennifer Easton founded first Peoples Fund in 1995 with a mission to honor and support American Indian artists and culture bearers. Nearly 20 years later, the organization has blossomed into a leading national organization with a variety of different grant and fellowship programs, an annual honoring and a number of artist training programs. e-Spirit sat down with Easton to get her impressions on how the organization has grown over the years.

It was from your vision in the mid-1990’s that First Peoples Fund was born. How did it begin and what is your role in the organization now?
I wanted the general public to be more aware of the incredible artistic diversity I saw among Indigenous people all over this country. People think of Native art and they often just think of turquoise and silver and beading… and that is about it. I wanted to change that perception. I always had an appreciation for Native art, but there was nowhere to buy it and nowhere to see it. I put the word out that I would like to meet with different artists. We put together a meeting in Rapid City and asked them what they needed and what they wanted. It started from that first meeting. I serve as an advisor now. I was on the board until a year ago. I miss it.

The organization has grown tremendously in two decades. Why do you think that is?
It is successful beyond what I ever imagined. I am just sort of amazed by it—the ways in which it has developed and grown. First Peoples Fund has an incredibly capable board of directors, and has expanded to meet the needs of the people it serves with programs and collaborations with groups like Artspace, and through the deep work it does in reservation communities. I really credit Lori Pourier. She really took the vision first developed decades ago and ran with it.

What are the challenges that Native artists face in today’s society?
I think Native people will always have more difficulties. In terms of philanthropy, it is about the last thing people fund. I don’t think the general public is very aware of the quality of work and rich tradition that Native artists bring to their work. Bringing that awareness is going to be a challenge.

You are not Native yourself, but what brought you to the place where you felt so passionately about Native artists?
I have always been involved with a lot of Native issues. I helped establish getting buffalo back on the reservation and making films about Native people. Vine Deloria was one of my mentors—he was one of the most outstanding Native Americans to me. He was the smartest person I had ever met in my entire life. He was a great help to his people.

My passion really started in the mid-1980’s after hearing a speech Luther Standing Bear gave before Congress in the 1860's. He said the whites were afraid of Native people because Natives knew how to live on the land. He said, “Only when your bones are dust in the land will you begin to understand the rhythms.” I began to feel the spirit of the land. That was the connection I felt with the Native people. I couldn’t seem to find that in my world.

What does 2014 look like for you and for this organization?
I continue to be excited about the direction First Peoples Fund is going. It is consistently about the artists and community—they are the center and I think that must always remain. I hope the interest in Native art grows and expands and replaces the stereotypes many have today.

I had a very powerful dream once. I was standing between two groups of people—the Calvary on one side and the Warriors on the other. My people were doing the wrong thing, but they were my people. At the end of the dream, I turned and walked toward the Native people. There is so much the U.S. government has done wrong when it comes to Natives. Maybe, in some way, this is my personal way of apologizing. Maybe this was my way of giving back.