Interview by Sarah Eagle Heart
Twila True, a member of Oglala Sioux Tribe, launched True Sioux Hope Foundation in 2015 to raise funds to tackle social problems at her home community, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. On the reservation there is a lack of jobs and adequate housing, alcoholism, drug abuse, despair, and suicide. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the poorest place in the nation, with a 90 percent unemployment rate, 70 percent high school dropout rate, an average life expectancy of 47 years old for men, an average annual household income of $3,500, and the highest infant mortality rate in the world.
For the past 14 years, Twila has built an extensive private portfolio of real estate in Asia and North America, including Thailand, China and the United States. Today, she is president of True Investments, LLC, a leading woman and minority-owned real estate investment firm that provides investment management and advisory services for its investors and financial partners, as well as direct investments for its own accounts.
Conducting the interview was Sarah Eagle Heart, also a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and CEO of IS member, Native Americans in Philanthropy, based in Minneapolis.
Your giving extends from the Pine Ridge reservation where you grew up to the places you’ve lived like Hong Kong and China. Thought leaders in Orange County, California recently named you one of the region’s most influential entrepreneurs and philanthropists. What is the thread that unites these activities?
The thread that unites these activities comes from my background. Seeing poverty, yet having tribe and family as a backdrop, inspired me to have the milestones in my life that were important to me. My drive was not the same as other entrepreneurs, often times they will say they were born entrepreneurs or wanted to own something. My drive was instilled because I was taught self worth and that I needed to accomplish something. This desire was combined with seeing poverty first hand, wanting to get out, and seeing mostly unsuccessful stories around me…whether it was business, family or philanthropy, the common thread is the desire to succeed based on experiences I had in my background.
Twila, you shared the one important teaching is this pride you have to maintain or to do things that your family can be proud of. I grew up to ‘help the people’, which came from the teachings of our tiyospaye. Is this something that has been instilled in you and why you have the True Sioux Hope Foundation?
Oh, absolutely. There is a sense of tribe that is so strong and so innate in us that runs extremely deep in our thought process, in the way we think and the way we feel. A lot of non-Native people don’t understand because they have never had it or they have lost it. Their families go back so many generations and their families have split. One thing very unique to us is that we were brought up to work together and it’s not just the word ‘tribe’, but we lived it. So although it is very common for us to not know our biological parent, your tribe takes care of you and they claim you. They don’t claim you because things are great…they claim you good, bad, right, wrong, when you need help, when you don’t need help…you belong to this group of people. And it’s not just to say you belong and I’m of this community or I’m of this ethnicity. No, you belong in a way that is treated no differently than your direct niece or direct nephew or direct uncle. And it is really instilled in us. It’s very, very important you work with your family group around you and make sure they are treated as a part of your direct family unit and feel no differently.
And sometimes those family member units are: a grandma who cooks food, an uncle who works, a neighbor who helps with something… all the way to me. It was back in our old ways where there were people who left the tribe to hunt and scout. Then, when they succeeded, brought that back to the tribe and shared with the tribe. That sense of because it was done for me, it is not an obligation.
I really like the little piece of historic Lakota culture you shared, where the warriors hunted and returned to share that sustenance with the entire tribe. In many ways, that contemporary version of tiyospaye is someone succeeding and bringing it back to the tribe to share. I really think that is what you are doing now.
Yes it is exactly what you said, where it is different than other demographics or other groups of people. Tiyospaye, a family unit, I feel it so strong when I go back to Pine Ridge and it doesn’t matter how long I have been gone. I get to live such a wonderful and fortunate life, but as rich and wonderful as it is it doesn’t give me the peace that I get when I land in Pine Ridge, the poorest place in the country. It is the richest place to me and a sense of home, tiyospaye, feeling a sense of belonging. I feel it when I bring other people from the reservation to talk about opportunities or trying to find opportunities for the reservation and there is a divide. Living on this side of the world in business meetings and board rooms, and Native people come doing some wonderful accomplished things, and yet the line is sort of drawn. I’m standing on the side I know is right amongst my people, because my people, they come when I ask them to come or I go back when they ask me to come back, no questions asked. And I know which side I am on and proud to be sitting right next to a lady who has had hard times, but that’s my family unit. This is where I am from.
Your world view really is that sense of tiyospaye and that is also your concept in giving back. You mentioned the thread that comes through all of your work, has this focus changed over time?
The focus has never changed. The understanding from the Native perspective and the understanding from the non-Native perspective has always matured along the way. I’ve lived on the Western side for so long that you know the little bit that they understand. Americans being so travelled, understanding history, being so rich in helping other countries, and yet right here they know so little. And it comes from a lot of different aspects, right? There are some aspects of world history that are unknown and omitted, and many countries have done this. I lived in China for a long time and there was a controversy with Japan where they say, ‘Oh in your Japanese history books you don’t educate your own children on the terrible things that the Japanese did to the Chinese and you kind of leave out some parts of what you did in World War II.’ Well, the Americans sort of do that too. There is a whole bunch of history that is left out that actually happened to the Natives, and I think that the Americans sort of have to get past that it’s a “black eye”. They just want to keep it buried and not talk about it. I think that some of the biggest, most wonderful progress we have made is because we understand history. The more you understand history, the more progress you can make in the future. And it’s not saying ‘oh look at how bad or terrible we were,” it just helps people understand where we are coming from and why Natives are where they are at.
I have a pet peeve when people don’t know or they just believe I have True Sioux Hope as a cause, because of where I live, how I dress, and maybe how articulate they think I am; they automatically come to an idea that I am not native. So, they talk to me in Western discussions and I hear things. I don’t know if they mean it or not but I hear them say things like, ‘Well, gosh Twila can we really help them?’ My number one pet peeve, and I hear it all the time, ‘Can we really help them, I mean they really enjoy drinking. They want to be where they are at.’ Then I let them know nicely, I am American Indian and here is my two year-old who is adopted from Pine Ridge, and here is my 15 year-old niece who is from Pine Ridge. Let’s ask them if their dream is to be alcoholics and live in a trailer?
That’s a really good example. I’ve been in the middle of those conversations before where people have just made assumptions.
You’ve seen it in the room right? You have seen the person ask the question and the fundamentals of the history aren’t there. They just see a present picture of an alcoholic laying out in front of a dirty trailer passed out and that’s it! You know that speaks to the past, present, and future. That picture right there says it all. Of course not! There is a whole reason! I think it starts with educating people; and I don’t want to go around and say “Gosh, look at all of the terrible things you did.” But you know what, it’s just a matter of fact that’s all. There is a reason, there is a history. Just so you understand what got us to this point and to help you understand what is going to help get him out of there.
If you look at the Jewish community, they did a very good job at having people understand what the Holocaust did to them. The African-American community, they have done a very good job at having people understand the history and some of the things that have held them back. And we need to articulate the story so that people understand. We have a quiet way about us where listening is more important. We need people to listen to us.
One of the things that hasn’t really happened is some of our biggest stories haven’t been truly heard. I mentioned to you that there is a movement around the Indian Boarding School era and more people ready to tell the story of colonization by churches and the government, but I think it’s also time where the entertainment industry and media stop portraying us in very stereotypical manners. When you think of the NFL™ R-word team or Dances with Wolves, the media always tell the savage or beauty stereotype stories–but not that harsh, harsh history. You are exactly right we need an accurate American Indian history in the US books.
I was really impressed with a piece my son, who is in the 9th grade at a California high school, wrote on history called a “True American Horror History”. It was really incredible and shared things that I didn’t even know about when Columbus landed and his first words said were “They are going to make great slaves.” The things that they did because they were anointed by God. This is their land and their God-given right to make them slaves. He didn’t make it up. It is really about an understanding of why, and like you said just having an accurate picture of history is important. That is the only way you begin to heal and can begin to fix things. When you talk about a movement, I think it is wonderful too. I think at times because so many other cultures and groups have already had their time. Natives haven’t, and this is a wonderful people, part of the heart of the American story. It hasn’t had its turn yet or understanding of why or what assistance is needed to get them out of this situation and to prosper as a people.
What is your view of “what works” in this challenging environment? You touched on this a little bit with the longstanding problems affecting everyone from the children to the elderly.
What we have always said is first of all education and it doesn’t mean college education. It means just, at least right now, a high school education. Education helps the individual and education also helps the tribe. I only have a high school education, so I am just saying high school at a minimum. Second, it helps the tribe and you can make the council richer with more culturally targeted education. It is at a base level for both the tribe, the U.S., and internationally. So that takes time, but it’s the only long term thing that will start to affect generations.
Secondly, assisting the young and the old. They are really helpless and we lose a lot of young and elderly. There are some very basic things that can get us out of third-world statistics so we don’t have a high mortality rate and aren’t dying at the age of 45 years old. We still have the highest cancer rate, we still have the highest diabetes rate. I think the U.S. would just like to have, within its borders, people that aren’t beating third world statistics.
Lastly, sustainability. I think if jobs can be geared to the reservation and if trades can be taught on the reservation; that is a huge advantage for both people on the reservation and people off the reservation. There are huge opportunities for people, for both the US and other countries, if they are able to build businesses such as light manufacturing, call centers, or other things. Companies could really prosper from creating sustainable projects on the reservation. Pine Ridge itself has a spending power of nearly $380 million annually. So these are dollars on groceries, cosmetics, and everyday living. And yet, 80 percent of those dollars are spent off of the reservation. You look at that as an entrepreneur and you say, “Gosh who would like to open up a grocery store, a mini-Walmart or something like that on the reservation for guaranteed revenue?” Otherwise these people have to drive 100 miles away, as they are doing right now.
You said the three things you were working on were education, helping the elderly and young, and then the workforce. So, what stages are you in and what are your plans?
I am always working on the three. The education part we got started with an all girls’ school. Helping the very young and the elderly, we do some things in that in a very small way that actually don’t cost a lot of dollars to do. The final one that takes time but we’re working tirelessly at it is the sustainability or jobs. That is why I think the government could also help out with opportunities to manufacture or sell more to the government. So, now this year we are going to be working toward fundraisers, looking toward other foundations to support us on this concept.
You had talked about your work in China with orphans. Do you find many Chinese business leaders also becoming involved in philanthropy in China? What is the difference between China and the US? What are the similarities and the differences?
There is a lot of poverty in China. The difference is probably one main point: China very much helps its own, understands its history and how it got there, and pays a lot of attention within its borders. I find the opposite here in the US. We don’t understand our accurate history, we don’t understand the people within our borders, we pay a lot of attention and give a lot of money to third-world countries. Yes! So much money from groups like Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and car companies…Gosh, the thinking around “we are the wealthiest, we are so strong and we are so prosperous that we help everybody else outside of our borders because we are so great. This doesn’t happen in our borders”…and yet Pine Ridge beats all of the third-world statistics. That is what I find so interesting. I see all kinds of commercials, and I am sure it is true. People in Africa need water, people in Africa need heat, but gosh take a trip to Pine Ridge.
As a philanthropist and CEO of an investment company do you apply the same insights and critical thinking or different ones to your corporate and charity work?
Absolutely! A charity is only as good as it can be sustainable. It would be really easy for me to fund this myself in very small dollar amounts delivering backpacks and formula and call it a day. But a business doesn’t become bigger and better by thinking like that and the cause will never change if you are just delivering backpacks and formula.
We don’t want Band-Aids. We don’t want to keep sitting on the trailer steps waiting for your backpack and formula. I have groups like Bed, Bath, and Beyond, CVS, and other groups who say “we have our surplus, surely people need these”. And yes, but those are temporary fixes for a problem. They are not solutions. They are not the way to help a prideful people stand on their own two feet again. That is what we want, we don’t want handouts. We don’t want to be beggars, we don’t want to be alcoholics, and don’t want to be sitting on trailers despite whatever else anybody thinks. That is not our dream, it is not our aspirations. We would like to work for our dollars, we would like to provide for our families, have honest jobs, help our own children, help our elderly, have more electricity, have more heat, and have jobs in our towns. Surprisingly enough, we are actually no different than the people right across from our border.
Yes, very true. Your husband is your collaborator in the investment world, do you share similar interests about giving back? I assume you do because you have shared with me the story of how he was the person who encouraged you to begin True Sioux Hope Foundation.
He is really the one that identified it because, as you and I know the story so intimately, I didn’t realize how much the world doesn’t know this exists. Our ideas on philanthropy are really impact philanthropy. There are tons of organizations I have asked to be a part of and some that I am going to stop being a part of because of the impact. For example, I can buy a ticket for $1,000, some are $5-$10,000 dollars, where you show up for fashion shows to give a kid an inner-city scholarship. That’s all wonderful and good, but the impact of that $10,000 in Indian Country is great. I have been to ones where it teaches people how to go to interviews and how to dress better or to have confidence in an urban city that meets US standard statistics. But what about giving those same dollars and literally, literally, save an elderly person from freezing to death this year; save a child from not dying this year; help a mother have prenatal vitamins so that her child makes it to the ninth month. So, impact giving. Not the scholarship to Harvard, but how about a girl to 12th grade without committing suicide and without getting pregnant?
Sarah Eagle Heart is CEO at Native Americans in Philanthropy.
About True Sioux Hope Foundation
True Sioux Hope Foundation plans to inspire unprecedented, permanent, positive change for the Sioux Tribe in South Dakota by providing much-needed funding for education and infrastructure (truesiouxhope.org).
About Native Americans in Philanthropy
Native Americans in Philanthropy is a membership-based organization that promotes reciprocity and investment in, with and for Native peoples to build healthy and sustainable communities for all. All are welcome to join the circle. Native Americans in Philanthropy is a powerful and growing network of Native and non-Native nonprofits, tribal communities, Native philanthropy, foundations, and community leaders committed to engaging, learning, and sharing resources and best practices grounded in the Native tradition of reciprocity.