Empowering Communities & Transforming Power Dynamics

The Arctic Indigenous Fund (AIF) is a new fund being led by young indigenous leaders from across the Arctic and supports participatory grantmaking across the North. It is a unique opportunity to decide how philanthropic funding should be distributed in ways that better support the needs of Northern communities and align with existing Indigenous-led efforts and leadership shaping the future of the North.

RSF’s Kelley Buhles talks with Liz Liske and Chandre Szafran from the Arctic Indigenous Fund about how to empower communities and transform the power dynamics in philanthropy.

Kelley:  I think the work of AIF does is amazing. Can you each tell us about yourselves?


My name is Elizabeth Liske, I am a Yellowknives Dene First Nation member of Chief Drygeese Territory located in Yellowknife, NT, Canada. My parents are Ethel and Philip Liske. This is how I was taught to introduce myself, including naming my parents, and I feel like it grounds me and helps me remember who I am and where I came from.

I’m currently the Manager of the Arctic Indigenous Fund, but I’ve just been named as the Director for the Arctic Funders Collaborative, which is a network of philanthropic funds – AIF is one of them. I also sit on Chief and Council for my First Nations and am a part-time student in Indigenous Language Revitalization. I am a Fellow with Philanthropy Northwest for minorities in Philanthropy, and I sit on an advisory board for Health and Social Services, appointed by the territory government’s health minister.


My Inupiaq name is Iqugan, and my English name is Chandre. I’m from Nome, Alaska and, grew up in Anchorage. My family is from Council, which is about 75 miles outside of Nome, and I am Inupiaq.

Like Liz, I introduce myself this way so that I can use my language. My grandmother was fluent in Inupiaq, but my mom, aunties, and uncles couldn’t learn for compounded various reasons during that time. For me, it’s powerful and important to introduce myself in my language-this is how our connections are identified and mentioning family and where we’re from is how people place us in our communities. I think of these connections like a constellation across Alaska—they go back so far and are still present today.

I’ve been an advisor on the AIF team for two years and have worked in the nonprofit sector across Alaska, and most recently in the Qawiarak region. What I have learned about philanthropy is that it really is an extension of our practice of sharing in a modern context. Our heritage across peoples throughout the Arctic has been connected for thousands of years, now those practices of sharing are practiced in this way as connected to philanthropy.

Kelley:  The structure is set up so that there are two representatives that act as grantmaking advisors from each region: there are two in Alaska, two in Canada, two in Greenland, and two from the Sápmi region. Can you share a little bit about the inspiration behind the structure?

Liz: My involvement with AIF is based on wanting to work on an international level, to learn about philanthropy, and to hopefully be able to build some bridges, not only for my community but for indigenous people as a whole.

Chandre:  One thing that continues to inspire me is that the AIF connects our Arctic Indigenous regions. Our peoples across the circumpolar Arctic have been connected for thousands of years not just through our heritage, traditions, and practices, but also through our relationship to the land and the ocean. We’re a part of the local environment—and our heritage and practices are specific to the arctic and subarctic.

From across northern Alaska to Canada to Greenland and Sápmi lands, our people have been connected. You can see it in our languages and traditions, and the fund connects us in modern ways.

Liz:  This approach elevates the authorities in the community-they know best what they need and what the approach should be. They’re doing philanthropy for them, and it’s by them. It’s pretty genius, although you think, “I don’t understand why this wasn’t something that’s always been done.”

Kelley:  I’m curious how advisors are selected, and what’s it like working together?

Chandre:  It starts with the nature of our recruitment process. Our previous director, Itoah, started by recruiting advisors based on her connections. Then we reached out and recruited other advisors—it’s been very word-of-mouth with everybody using our networks and reaching out to people. It’s produced an interesting constellation of connections, which mirrors the way that our people share.

Liz:  We’re in a unique position to come together to reach a common goal, and watching it unfold is inspiring and empowering because usually, minorities don’t get to see that for each other. We’re too often the one person representing your community in a non-indigenous environment, but this was completely our own.

I’ve been in a lot of these spaces and when there’s a question about indigenous people, and you’re supposed to have all the answers and represent everybody.   This space is different and refreshing. The regions come together, do an indirect knowledge exchange, and use consensus for decision making.  They value and respect each other’s regions.

Liz:  Each grant cycle is different. During the AIF’s first grant cycle, we focused on indigenous languages, and this grant cycle’s focus is indigenous youth.

The advisors take different approaches based on what works for their communities, and they’re also indigenizing the process because they are from the community. Often in the philanthropic sector, people put money into communities, but they’re not a part of those communities, so they aren’t directly affected. Since the AIF advisors are directly affected, learning from their successes and mistakes produces change that is more authentic.

Chandre:  The first advisor meeting took place in Yellowknife in 2018 and the fact we were able to decide on a theme is amazing because we had so many potential themes and settled on indigenous languages.

We were all inspired by language, and 2019 was also the year of indigenous languages. In all of our regions there is a lot of different language work because it’s important and there’s so much that’s being woken up for language.

Kelley:  Can you share a specific project with us?

Chandre:  Out of the many efforts that we wanted to support in Alaska is a school in Bethel, Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yup’ik Immersion School. The Yup’ik language is one of the most thriving in Alaska, and it’s partially due to this Yup’ik immersion school that leaders in Bethel decided many years ago that they were going to work on language.

The school building itself had burned down in 2015, but they were still doing Yup’ik immersion classes and had integrated the classes into a theater space. In fall 2018, the AIF invited grant partners who work on Arctic indigenous languages in all the regions across the circumpolar Arctic to come to Alaska. All of us, the advisors from each region plus the language partners we invited, were able to go and observe the classes, the teaching techniques, and all of the things that help the Yup’ik language thrive.

All of us were able to visit the school, and it was amazing to see the kids in their Friday morning assembly and sing songs in Yup’ik, do dances, and that they get to do this every Friday at assembly was really cool. That experience was so inspiring. We also learned a lot of lessons as an advisor group.

Kelley:  What you value about your partnership with RSF?

Liz:  Mine’s short and simple and sweet — the flexibility and the support.

Chandre:  I can see that RSF really is putting intentional effort towards understanding communities that maybe RSF didn’t originate from.

The fact that there are roles dedicated to understanding the communities they’re working with is not something that I had often seen previously. That shows that there’s an effort towards understanding that things are different for the communities that they’re working with. As Liz mentioned, when you’re the only person in the room, sometimes other people who aren’t from your same background just might not  understand that things are different for them and that they themselves move through the world differently and that their communities move through the world differently.

Kelley:  Anything else that you’d like to highlight about this work?

Liz:  I view the Arctic Indigenous Fund as a student in the philanthropy sector. In indigenous teachings, students are given the opportunity to learn by doing. If an elder is teaching a youth to cut a fish, they just hand over the knife and let the youth learn by trying it themselves.  The student is allowed to make mistakes but is allowed to do, learn, and get better.  I think that’s what the Arctic Indigenous Fund is-we are looking for patience, guidance, and room to learn from our successes and our mistakes. That’s the only real way we’re going to learn how to pave a path in this sector for not just for granting, but for other indigenous leaders.

Kelley:  I think in the process of decolonizing philanthropy, it can be easy to feel like you’re making a mistake when really you might be just decolonizing it. You are unlearning philanthropy-you can learn it and unlearn it at the same time.

Chandre:  The process of unlearning is messy. Decolonizing our own selves and our own practices can be really ugly.  But that’s what it takes. It’s hard work-doing the right thing is usually hard work.

It feels like this kind of work is only going to continue and to grow and improve.  Things cycle back on themselves in order to evolve and to move forward. There are powerful things happening that will continue. It’s exciting to be a part of it.

Photos courtesy of Arctic Indigenous Fund



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