Northland Foundation makes first grassroots grants/Maada’ookiing program

Northland Foundation Maada’ookiing program website screenshot.

By Lee Egerstrom

An innovative, grassroots community building program for Native communities in Northeast Minnesota has made its initial grants to 13 “change makers” designing programs for Native youth, dependency/addiction program participants, students and educators.

The Duluth-based Northland Foundation was scheduled to announce in early August that it is awarding $32,300 to 13 of 19 applicants for grants under Northland’s new Maada’ookiing (“the distribution” in Ojibwe) program.

In what may well serve as a model for nonprofit, charitable grantmaking nationwide in the future, Northland created a special board of Native, or indigenous leaders, from across Northeast Minnesota and Northland’s service area.

This followed nearly two years of researching and asking tribal leader from throughout the region about their needs and what the foundation might do better for Native communities and partners, said Tony Sertich, the foundation president.

What emerged is now an indigenous-led board overseeing and approving grants for Maada’ookiing. It contains representatives of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Grant Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe; and other Indigenous leaders from the geographic area of Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake and St. Louis counties.

Foundations have long histories working with tribal nations and officially incorporated institutions and nonprofits, Sertich said. “We wanted to know what we might do better for grassroots organizing, engaging the people we want to service,” he said.

A key in the planning stages was consultant Karen Diver, a former tribal chairwoman at Fond du Lac. She previously held faculty positions at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth and the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Diver also served as special assistant to President Barack Obama on Native American Affairs. University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel In May this year appointed her as the system’s first Senior Advisor to the President for Native American Affairs.

Northland’s indigenous-led effort took a jump forward in December when it hired LeAnn Littlewolf (Leech Lake Band) as a senior program officer to coordinate Maada’ookiing. She was the economic development director at the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO) in Duluth and had worked in nonprofit and community organizing positions for more than 28 years.

What’s more, she is the embodiment of who Northland’s new indigenous program is trying to reach, Sertich said.

Early in her career, Littlewolf started a program to assist women and girls in Virginia on the Iron Range. “We met with foundations and charitable groups. Some gave us support, but no money. One foundation told us we needed at least three years of experience to qualify for grants, she said.

Her start-up did operate with volunteers for three years, she said. Eventually, nonprofits in the region did move beyond verbal encouragement to fiscal support.

Through the years that followed, Littlewolf earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Education and also a Master’s in Advocacy and Political Leadership. With AICHO and others, she designed and developed programs focused on Native youth leadership, a food sovereignty program and assisted others in other indigenous social enterprises.

“We (indigenous people) still lack local, grassroots leaders and programs that can bring progress and change to our communities,” she said, noting that is what the new Northland program is trying to encourage. “You need to have people in place, advocating, to be engaged with others and resources.”

That may be changing with Maada’ookiing.

“The board had many more applications to consider than we originally anticipated with a freshly launched program that takes a different approach from traditional (foundation) grantmaking,” Erik Torch, Director of Grantmaking, said in announcing the initial awards.

They include:
• Laura Winter ($2,500) for developing classes and working with youth on harvesting, ways to use and creating art with wiiggwaas (birchbark).
• Jeffrey Boshey ($2,500) for various teaching on cultural language and practices with music with the Duluth Area Drum and Dance Troop.
• Jacob Dunlap ($2,400) for a Digital Storytelling Library project for preserving Ojibwe and other Native elders’ stories, in different formats.
• John Daniel ($2,500) for building a curriculum and assessment program for use in Ojibwe language immersion programs.
• Ivy Vainio ($2,400) for a “Niigaanii: Leading the Way Billboard Banner,” aimed at indigenous and BIPOC youth in Duluth’s Hillside community. It seeks to increase indigenous visibility and to encourage indigenous girls to become medical students and Native physicians.
• Carla DaRonco ($2,500) for a Cloquet murals project for creating mural in educational spaces, reintroducing indigenous safe spaces in school settings and raise Native visibility.
• Khayman Goodsky ($2,500) for an Indigenous in Media program using a podcast series featuring Native artist in film, music, comic books, clothing design and other fields representing indigenous cultures. Northland’s announcement said the goal is to bring more awareness and support for indigenous artists.
• Teresa Knife Chief ($2,500) for a Diversity Leadership Project. Aimed at creating leaders among Native youth and provide diversity training for teachers. It begins with a week encampment at Camp Northern Lights near Babbitt to prepare students with culture, diversity and leadership skills to bring change to their schools, communities and relationships.
• Shayna Clark ($2,500) for Sisters of Substance, a culturally-based support group for indigenous women struggling with addictions and mental health issues.
• Jason Goward ($2,500) for a talking circle recovery support group. It will include a traditional drum ceremony and feast for community members supporting one another.
• Frank Goodwin ($2,500) for a Cultural Therapeutic Art and Wellness Project. It will be placed in a Native halfway house to allow participants to reconnect with their creativity and understanding their feelings, thoughts and identity through cultural art projects.
• Natalie Smith ($2,500) for a Duluth/Cloquet Sober Squad Talking Circle. While open to everyone, it will provide culturally relevant space to support recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
• Cheryl Edwards ($2,500) for building a Constitution Education Activity with community-based games and activities at Fond du Lac. It will focus on constitutional awareness, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Constitution and its current reform process.
The next application deadline for Maada’ookiing grants is Sept. 15.

More information can be found at, and