Native assets

Advocate works to restore rights, wealth, dignity of native people.

By Ret Boney

Rebecca Adamson was sent to jail so many times in the first five years of her professional life that she memorized her lawyer’s phone number.

It was her relentless work in the Indian-controlled school movement, an effort to give Native Americans some control over their children’s education, that ruffled so many feathers and in part led to the Indian Self Determination and Education Act of 1975.

“Indians wanted a say about the education of their children,” says Adamson. “I realized the brilliance we had in our own communities.”

Three decades later, the founder and president of First Nation’s Development Institute is still shaking things up to advance her fellow Native Americans, as well as other indigenous people around the globe.

The daughter of an Eastern Cherokee and a first-generation Swede, Adamson works to help native people control and develop the assets, including land and the natural resources that land yields, to which they once had sole access.

In the U.S., that means helping Indians, who make up 1 percent of the population and own 5 percent of the land, trailing only the federal government and the states as a landowner, she says.

“Indians are the poorest people in the country,” says Adamson, who believes assets are the path out of poverty.  “I say we are land-rich, dirt-poor.”

Internationally, that means helping the 300 to 400 million indigenous people in over 90 countries who would own 30 percent of the world’s land mass if traditional land claims were upheld, she says.

“There are two pillars to First Nations,” she says. “One is my experience as part of the Indian-controlled school movement.  The second piece was that culture is the fountain and the strength for how we move forward.”

Rebecca Adamson

Job: Founder and president, First Nations Development Institute, Fredericksburg, Va.

Born: 1949, Akron, Ohio

Family: Daughter, Neva, age 29; dog, Shunka

Education: M.S., economics, University of Southern New Hampshire

Hobbies: Refinishing furniture, reading

Just read:  “The Mammoth Cheese,” by Sheri Holman

Favorite book: “The Mists of Avalon,” by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Inspiration Ceremonies, songs and land of indigenous people

When she started the group 1980, she says, it was radical to embrace Indian culture, heritage and uniqueness rather than shed it, a notion she calls “culturally appropriate development” and that she believes is the key to success.

Today, the group has evolved into a development organization that helps native people regain and maximize the property they own, which in the U.S. consists of reservations controlled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, acting as an asset manager for Indians.

The government holds Indian assets in trust, with the federal government as trustee and the bureau as manager.

So although Indians own the land, the bureau has sole discretion in how the land is leased, to whom and for how much, Adamson says.

By leasing land at rates drastically below market value, Adamson says, the government is using Indian assets to prop up corporate America while Indians lose wealth.

“Indians are held hostage by the government,” she says.  “We operate in what is a formerly Soviet Union mentality.”

In a typical First Nations project, the group helps Indians wrest control of their land from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and lease it at market rates, which Adamson says meant raising the income of a tribe in Idaho from $167,000 per year to $2.3 million.

“It works well with the community itself,” Adamson says, “because you can get in and out in about five years and have a permanent standing good change.”

First Nations is now preparing to launch a large public awareness campaign called “Asset Revenue Watch,” which will focus on the value of three major Indian assets — land, oil and gas.

The group will identify what it believes are the most egregious cases of mismanagement by the bureau, expose the current lease arrangements and then publicize what those assets could be earning for the people that own them.

“The general public needs to have a political will and join us,” Adamson says. “We’re hoping that by doing that, we’ll actually get the policy reform we need to correct the whole system.”

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