Cherokee activist Rebecca Adamson did not form her political voice
until her twenties, the qualities responsible for her success were
evident in a childhood habit that has lasted until adulthood: hitchhiking.
summer, Adamson would hitchhike south from her hometown of Akron,
Ohio to see her destitute relatives in Lumberton, North Carolina.
The visits gave Adamson a first-hand taste of the injustices faced
by Native Americans. They also shaped her into a teenage misfit
unable to embrace the suburban life of the Midwest.
courage, persistence, trust in strangers and willingness to take
risks developed as she made the yearly trek to Lumberton. They are
the same traits that enabled the 50-year-old Adamson to transform
an idea into a not-for-profit organization with an annual operating
budget of nearly $2 million.
Nations Development Institute, the project that Adamson launched
with an unemployment check in 1980, has one mission: to enable Native
Americans and other indigenous peoples to become economically self-sufficient
while maintaining their cultural values. The Institute provides
about $1 million yearly to groups that are committed to this goal.
The following recipients of Institute funding are just two examples
of grassroots solutions favored by Adamson:
Zuni Entrepreneurial Enterprises (ZEE) of New Mexico: Composed primarily
of disabled tribal members, ZEE operates the largest regional recycling
program in all of Indian country. Many of the recyclables are collected
from tourist litter that dots the landscape. In addition to creating
jobs and generating revenue, the recycling program promotes preservation
of the environment.
Nez PercÈ Young Horseman Program of Idaho: The Young Horseman Program
allows elders of the Nez PercÈ tribe to pass on to their youth the
traditions of selective breeding and training Appaloosa horses.
Appaloosa horses, known for their distinctive colors and calm temperament,
are well suited for circuses and parades as well as cattle herding.
is a dream come true for Adamson to create projects that celebrate
Native American traditions. As an economics student at Piedmont
College in Georgia, Adamson railed against the neoclassical view
that resources are scarce and are therefore meant to be hoarded.
She soon dropped out of college and hitchhiked to the West Coast,
where she set out to prove that the hallmarks of indigenous economies-namely
the sharing and distribution of resources, sustainability and collective
property rights-had a place in modern society.
the early 1970s, Adamson became director of the Colorado-based Coalition
of Indian Controlled School Boards. As she fought for the right
of Native Americans to manage their own schools, she became convinced
that the only way for them to take control was to become economically
1980, Adamson was ready to act upon her beliefs. While battling
uterine cancer, she cashed her unemployment check, moved to New
York City, and canvassed foundation after foundation for funding.
In less than a year, Adamson had secured $25,000 from the Ford Foundation
and moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia to open her offices.
then, her renown has increased in Indian country as well as in the
wider community of indigenous peoples. As a United States representative,
she played a role in the writing of the Indigenous and Tribal People's
Convention that was spearheaded by the International Labor Organization.
In 1996, she was honored as one of Ms. magazine's Women of the Year.
year later, for the 25th anniversary issue of Ms., Adamson summarized
the world view that became rooted in her childhood and still holds
true for her today: "The issue of development, more than any other
issue, is the battle line between two competing world views-Euro-American
values of individualism, domination, exploitation, and separation,
versus tribal values of kinship, balance, reciprocity, and interconnectedness."