Leap Voices is a new series lifting up the importance of equity and high performance by sharing the voices and experiences of Leap Ambassadors.
Making Urban Indians Visible
Linda Johanek • July 2023
A five-week miracle, a canary in a coal mine, and an activist who won’t quit sums up Janeen Comenote’s work with Urban Indians. Most Americans don’t know that the vast majority of Native Americans live in cities. Our schools teach as if they are a people of the past, and politicians treat them as statistically insignificant. After working with nonprofits in Urban Indian communities for almost two decades, Janeen knew Urban Native communities needed something they had never—ever—received: funding for civic engagement. Fellow Leap Ambassador Linda Johanek spoke with Janeen about her lived experience as a Native American, why she founded the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, and what makes the coalition—and her—strong.
Linda: The work you’re doing at the National Urban Indian Family Coalition is very important. Can you tell me more about the mission?
Janeen: Our mission is to celebrate and advocate for American Indian nonprofits in urban settings. About 80% of all Native American people in the United States live in cities, and the nonprofits we work with—I call them tribal embassies—are there to provide culture, human services, education, and a range of other activities. American Indians are largely invisible in the United States, so this subsection of Indian country is actually the majority of Indian country and even more silent because we are also members of our nations and our tribe. We advocate for the nonprofit sector and the communities these Native nonprofits serve.
Linda: What brought you to this work?
Janeen: I was born an Urban Indian in Seattle. My father was an activist so I was raised with the knowledge that giving back to community is expected. It wasn’t something we questioned. You just don’t know what form that’s going to take when you’re growing up. I came to this work because I worked for 18 years at an Urban Indian nonprofit. I worked with Native street kids in Seattle, did a few years of community-based participatory research on poverty, and worked at an Indian child welfare agency. I was a foster home licenser and a development officer, so I got the entire gamut of experience of Urban Native nonprofits. For me, the evolution leading to the founding of the NUIFC lies in not only my years of working for a Native nonprofit, but it also finds its genesis in the fact that my family, as an Urban Native family was served by one. Experiencing firsthand how important they are for both services and culture was transformational in how I would approach my career and how I would view the importance of this particular piece of the nonprofit sector.
Linda: You have many programs, and I’m especially intrigued by your Democracy Is Indigenous (DII) initiative. Can you tell me more about that?
Janeen: It’s the crown jewel of our work right now. We’re celebrating our 20-year anniversary, and I’m the founding executive director, which gives me a unique 50,000-feet view of American Indian nonprofits. In my (now) 20 years of observing Urban Native nonprofits, I’ve seen that resources follow policy and policy follows elections. You pair that with our qualitative observations over the last few years, and we see that nonprofits who have a decent civic engagement game tend to have more resources.
Letting our policymakers know we’re here, we exist, and our community has needs is the foundation of DII. The real genesis of Democracy is Indigenous was in 2012-2015 when we did a project called “Making the Invisible Visible” that rose from a visit we had with the Obama White House. We realized that nobody knows anything about Indians and the visit underlined the need to produce information about this population and its policy needs. And you can’t talk about policy needs without visiting civic engagement—not just voter engagement, but civic engagement, too. Making the Invisible Visible policy exploration led us to meet with policy makers in 11 cities asking what they knew about the Native community in their municipality . A pivotal moment in the evolution of DII was when one of the LA county commissioners actually said, “I don’t have to worry about Indians because they don’t vote.” And I thought, “What?” We so often get labeled with this moniker of statistically insignificant, because we are a small population, but in places like Minneapolis, MN, or Washington state, Native kids make up less than 2% of the child population but more than 14% of children in foster care. So there’s a disproportionate impact on the tax base, regardless of how big or small you think we are.
After the 2016 election, we saw that real measurable harm could be coming to our communities via a hostile government, and we began thinking about how to institutionalize this knowledge about civic engagement. We needed to ensure that our communities understand that the connection between their lived experience and who is in office is very real. We all feel it every day to some degree. You take a bus, you feel it. You take taxis, you feel it. You go to the grocery store, you feel it. And then in 2018, we got our first big grant, $500,000, from a foundation. It was the first time in history that Urban Native communities were being funded to do civic engagement. I call it the five-week miracle. We got the funding in the fall of 2018 and redistributed it in 17 grants to our nonprofits to engage in the 2018 midterm votes. In those five weeks, they got 67,000 people into events and our participating organizations got 16 million social media hits. These organizations have often spent decades working within their communities and are trusted messengers. We saw a remarkable return on investment from these organizations. Ever since then, it’s just grown and we’ve now invested almost seven million dollars into our organizations to get out the vote every year and really engage in civic engagement activities.
Linda: What inspires you to do this work and what keeps you going?
Janeen: I love watching genius in action. It is so inspiring to see how humans, not just Native people, respond in times of crisis and how creative they are. I look at the organizations we work with, and they’re just geniuses. They know how to do this work. They’re really creative and are always coming up with a totally different way of thinking or a different idea for how to do this work. What drives me more than anything is our purpose. It’s giving a voice to the voiceless and visibility to the invisible, because so often, Native people are invisible. It’s part of reciprocity which is a core cultural value for Native people.
Linda: There are barriers to success in all work. What are the greatest obstacles you face?
Janeen: Invisibility, which sounds like a pat answer, but you have to understand the impact of invisibility on Native people. So many people don’t know that we are the only race of people in America mentioned in the Constitution. The colonizers signed treaties that said, “When you give us this land, this country, we’re going to provide housing and healthcare and education.” Treaties are international law. American history is peppered with government acts that minimize treaty obligations, and that’s why we have Urban Indians. It started with the Termination Act in the 1890s, which terminated the federal recognition of tribes throughout the country and moved all the way up to the 1950s and 60s morphing into the Indian Termination and Relocation Act, or the “Relocation Act” for short. Natives were promised a job, a place to live, and other benefits, but that never really happened and many had to fend for themselves. The government’s trust responsibility falls within the reservation boundaries. So if the government gets them off the reservation, they don’t have to provide housing, education, and other services anymore. So this invisibility is a manufactured invisibility. It’s a legislative invisibility. So when we come into every major city in America, there’s no Indian neighborhood. There’s Latino, Black, and Asian neighborhoods. Only Minneapolis has a tiny neighborhood that’s Native. Another obstacle is the lack of representation in the areas that need it most.
Linda: What is the impact of your work?
Janeen: First and foremost, it’s providing visibility. We’ve been able to bring these urban organizations together in a way that has never been done at this scale. We’re creating a peer-to-peer network of organizations that are working both with and for one another toward a common goal, which is DII, thriving cities, and digital equity and education. All of that came out of the policy framework we created in 2015, providing the space for these organizations to not feel alone in the work. Learning is probably the most important thing we’re bringing to the table. Organizations are working together to help one another build programming and learn from each other’s mistakes. It’s pretty remarkable.
Our next big push with DII, which I’m very excited about, is this notion that we are better together as humans. We’re beginning the process of reaching out to other communities of color. Divide and conquer works. When organizations are fighting over meager resources, they’re not working together. As these communities come together, they aren’t working within a scarcity mental model; they’re working within a mental model of abundance and a force to be reckoned with. We are asking ourselves how we begin to create authentic relationships with other communities of color in our cities. If we walked in the lawmakers’ door and presented our needs with the Black community, the Latino community, and the Asian community, we can’t be ignored and are no longer invisible. So we are thinking about how to do that at scale.
Linda: There have been some great discussions about equity and high performance in the Leap Ambassadors Community. How does equity and high performance look in the context of your work?
Janeen: High performance is one of those goals that you’re always working toward. For us, the measure of high performance is also the measure of community transformation that we see on the ground. From a nonprofit viewpoint, it’s when you see real change happening in your stakeholder community. As humans, we can come up with these overly complex systems of measuring change. There is evidence-based practice, but I like to flip it and say our nonprofits are creating practice-based evidence, and it’s a work in progress at all times.
One example of practice-based evidence is our work in Seattle. We knew that culture, as a means of therapy, is effective in Native communities, and we also knew that the Sweat Lodge, a ceremony that takes place in a traditionally constructed lodge would be an effective therapeutic approach. The organization I worked for had a contract with the State of Washington to provide therapeutic services to Native children. Native kids in foster care have big issues like most foster kids, no matter what race. We know that going into a Sweat is a really effective therapeutic tool, but the State of Washington told us that we couldn’t do it. We noticed that the kids who went through the Sweats and the ceremonies had a better sense of self than before. We observed and interviewed the children after Sweat Lodge and then used this information to get the State of Washington to accept Sweats as a therapeutic practice.
I think, from an equity perspective, it looks different depending on who is thinking about it. I sat on a corporate advisory group and saw how equity in corporate America is seen in a way that’s astonishingly different from how we view it in the nonprofit sector. In my experience, many nonprofit boards have a tendency to be more diverse compared to corporate and philanthropic boards which tend to be dominated by white men. I think there are some “baked in” DEI issues with the power structures of corporate (and philanthropic) America that still need close attention.
Linda: In my hometown of Cleveland, our baseball team changed its name from the Cleveland Indians to the Guardians. There has been a lot of conversation about mascots over the years. What do you think is important for people to keep in mind when they’re having these types of conversations?
Janeen: The mascot issue is a big one and very divisive. My high school mascot was the West Seattle Indians, a caricature of Native Americans that was plastered all over the school, during pep rallies, and at sporting events. Students would wear horrible headdresses and paint their faces, and, honestly, it made me feel shitty. Everybody knew I was Native, so they would point at me and say you’re an Indian, ha-ha. A lot of mascot proponents say they are respecting our culture. No, actually they’re not. We don’t agree with blackface anymore or negative Asian tropes, but it’s still okay to have Native caricature mascots. We know from research that the mascot issue suppresses young Native people’s ability to see themselves in a positive light, because they’re always seen as a caricature which is so pervasive and a form of ridicule. Maybe, now that they finally changed their name, the Guardians will win a World Series! 😊 Now, we just need to get rid of that stupid tomahawk chop in Atlanta and Kansas City.
Linda: What is one thing you’d like the rest of the country to know about American Indian families living in urban areas?
Janeen: I would reiterate that most American Indians live in urban areas, not on reservations. I would say, let your human curiosity take hold, find out whose land you’re living on, who used to be there, who claimed that area. If you live in an American city, you’re living in the traditional homeland of somebody. And most people don’t know who that is, and I’m not even mad at them, because that’s our educational system’s fault. That’s what happens when you have a country that has literally, institutionally, and systematically erased people, because the country doesn’t want to face its own role as a perpetrator of their genocide. I’d like people to hear true stories, like how my grandmother was literally ripped out of her screaming, crying mother’s arms on the Pine Ridge Reservation and sent to an abusive school on the Oregon coast. That’s my grandmother. People think Indian boarding schools are ancient history because Americans are taught in school that American Indians are people of the past and that these atrocities happened a long time ago. But they happened just two generations ago.
One of my mentors, Ladonna Harris, often says that Native people are the canaries in the coal mine. We’re the very first population to face whatever is going to be coming down the pike for the rest of the populations. Look at the history of racism in America, things were happening to Native people that would subsequently happen to Black people, Latino people, and Asian people. It’s important to know that, while these horrible things have happened to Native people, we’re still here, we are thriving, and I truly believe that Indigenous people and cultures have a lot to teach this toxic world about how to be human again.