A Growing Number of Bay Area Foundations Are Paying “Land Taxes” to Native Peoples

By Michael Kavate, Inside PhilanthropyPosted under Uncategorized

This article was originally published in Inside Philanthropy on April 26, 2022.

A little over a year ago, the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and its allies began a new campaign to let more Bay Area foundations know about a little-known way of supporting the organization: the Shuumi Land Tax.

The tax asks for an annual contribution from non-Native individuals and institutions living or operating on the traditional territory of the Lisjan Ohlone people, whose unceded land makes up most of what is known as the East Bay. The racial awakenings of 2020 led to many new donors seeking to make some form of amends for the nation’s history of genocide and colonization of Native peoples. The trust, a Native women-led organization working to return land to Indigenous people, and its partners hoped to use that opening to bring additional philanthropic institutions into the fold.

It has taken off. Last year, eight grantmakers paid Shuumi, up from just one before the campaign started, and more are in conversations about starting. The payments totalled $290,000, a welcome source of recurring funds that largely lack the restrictions and requirements that define so much of foundation grantmaking. And the tax, along with similar mechanisms across the country, offers an alternate approach for philanthropy to connect with and support Indigenous-led organizations.

“It’s really created these relationships that are more equal. It’s not a top-down kind of relationship,” said Corrina Gould, co-director of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and spokeswoman and tribal chair of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone. “It’s refreshing that so many people are taking up this way of giving funding.”

Supporters like the Walter and Elise Haas Fund and Ceres Trust have published blog posts relating why they started paying land taxes to help spread the word. “But in general, we invite foundations and the public to pay Shuumi without investment in recognition,” said Ariel Luckey, Sogorea Te’s development director and part of the team who created the tax, in an email. So far, most publicly known foundations paying the tax are smaller, progressive, family-led institutions.

The total number paying the tax represents a tiny percentage of the estimated 4,381 foundations located in the Bay Area. But there are signs of such taxes catching on. Some of the funders paying Shuumi make similar contributions to Native groups in other regions or states where they have offices or make grants, which could seed further expansion of this approach across the country.

Awareness is also growing. Shuumi and similar voluntary payments have also been featured in outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian and New York Magazine’s The Cut. Major institutions outside of philanthropy are also starting to sign up, with the Alameda City Council voting last year to become the first city to pay the Shuumi Land Tax, budgeting an annual $11,000 payment for two years.

Land rematriation, the process of restoring the relationship between Native peoples and their ancestral lands, is the ultimate mission of Sogorea Te’. That effort, along with the similar Land Back movement to return land to Indigenous people, have long histories, but attention seems to be building within philanthropy and beyond.

That includes a surge of funding for related work. The Native group NDN Collective, for example, has become a favorite of grantmakers and big donors in recent years. Nations and foundations pledged $1.7 billion late last year in support of Indigenous protection of tropical forests. MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos and others have recently given tens of millions to regrantors led by and working with Indigenous peoples.

How the land tax works

All institutions in the Bay Area are invited to pay Shuumi. But Sogorea Te’ (roughly pronounced sah-gor-ah-TAY) has a special set of guidelines for foundations.

One part of the process is finding your number. The trust encourages spend-out foundations to pay the nonprofit rate (which ranges from 0.0025% to 0.01% of the annual budget, depending on the organization’s size), while those granting 10% or less of their endowment annually are asked to use the higher business rate (which tops out at 0.04%).

Another is how to pay the tax. While some pay Shuumi as a grant due to institutional needs or limitations, foundations are encouraged to structure it as an administrative expense. After all, it’s called a tax, though Gould isn’t keen on the term.

“The word tax is a horrible word, but everybody understands it, right?” she told me. “Shuumi means a gift” — in the Chochenyo language — “and that’s really what it is. When you give someone a gift, it comes with no strings attached. That’s what gifting is about. It comes from your heart.”

Percentages and procedures are only one part of paying Shuumi. The website urges foundations to think through their footprint on Lisjan Ohlone territory, including how much of their operations and grantmaking are in the region, and how to use their influence and leverage beyond sending a check.

It also asks them to consider the source of the wealth the foundation manages, particularly whose labor and land was used to amass it. Such conversations can force reflection on historic wrongs, including those against the Lisjan Ohlone (which includes a lack of federal recognition) and other Native peoples.

For instance, last year, the trust heard from the Whitman Institute, a San Francisco-based foundation that will soon sunset. Upon learning the institute wanted to give them one of their last grants, the discussion turned to the source of the Whitman family’s wealth: railroads. That hit home for Gould.

“As the railroads came through the Bay Area, they destroyed many of our sacred sites and shellmounds,” she told me. “Those are the stories [we find] when we go back and we look at how wealth got created in this country.”

She welcomes the chance to talk about how those histories have shaped the present, particularly with descendants of families like the Whitmans, whom she believes were not aware of what happened.

“How did that disconnect happen? People coming to the Bay Area to destroy people’s cemeteries while they were creating this way for people to get across the country,” she said. “What did it do to cultures that have been here for thousands of years? And why have those conversations never happened before? What an opportunity for us to have those conversations now.”

“It’s time for philanthropy to join”

One institution has been particularly active in spreading the word in philanthropy about land taxes: Justice Funders, whose Oakland headquarters are on unceded Lisjan Ohlone territory. The grantmaker network started paying Shuumi last year, and as part of its broader mission, has been working ever since to invite others to do the same.

It held a webinar — with 200-plus attendees — and an interactive workshop on the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and the Shuumi land tax last summer. It has had one-on-one conversations with a dozen of its members, and maintains a detailed resource page on Shuumi and other land taxes. And through its Medium account, it published the funder accounts of the land tax mentioned above, including a narrative this month from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.

“Slowly, we have been seeing some traction, where more and more foundations are beginning to pay the tax,” said Maria Nakae, senior engagement director at Justice Funders, who calls it a “moral obligation” for philanthropy. Nakae helped launch the campaign to inform foundations about Shuumi alongside Luckey, Paola Diaz of 11th Hour Project and Kathryn Gilje of Ceres Trust, who co-chairs Justice Funders’ board.

Many staff at Justice Funders’ member organizations, which are mostly based in the Bay Area, were already paying the tax as residents of Berkeley or Oakland. But very few of their employers were doing so. “For a lot of institutions, this was the very first time that concept had even crossed their minds,” said Nakae.

Nakae describes the campaign as a “long-term effort” given the barriers within philanthropy to such changes. For instance, when land tax is paid as an administrative expense, it may require internal conversations, complex paperwork and buy-in beyond what is needed for a grant. All that takes time. But she sees a larger movement building that will bring foundations with it.

“The very organizations that are the grantees of the foundations are paying the taxes. These tiny nonprofits who are under-resourced, overworked and are still paying this tax,” Nakae said. “Our communities — everyday people, nonprofit organizations, community organizations — are getting on board. It’s time for philanthropy to join.”

A practice that stretches across the nation

Land taxes are not just a Bay Area phenomenon. Similar mechanisms under various names exist not only across California, but also in other parts of the country.

The Manna-hatta Fund in New York City suggests a starting point for residents of $24 a month — the same amount Europeans infamously “paid” the Canarsie tribe for the island of Manhattan — and was inspired in part by Shuumi. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Honor Native Land Tax asks for monthly donations, based on wealth and income, to two local Native-led nonprofits. And the Honor Tax that supports the Wiyot Nation, whose ancestral lands encompass the Humboldt Bay region of California, was a major influence in developing Shuumi.

Some foundations now send checks to such efforts across the regions where they operate. Take the Stupski foundation: The San Francisco-based funder started paying Shuumi last year. But its work extends across the Bay Area and to Hawaii, so it didn’t stop there.

The foundation pays the Yunakin Land Tax to the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone, which represents the original inhabitants of the San Francisco Peninsula. It also gives general operating support to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. Guided by Sogorea Te’s calculator, Stupski determined an annual contribution of $25,000 for each recipient, which it structures as grants.

The payments came about as a result of a foundation-wide effort to integrate racial equity throughout its operations, and are based on where the foundation is focused, said Gwyneth Tripp, director of grantmaking practice. Stupski wanted “to show up equally in the different areas where we live, work and operate,” she told me.

Some foundations pay land tax and also have Indigenous-focused portfolios. One such funder is the Ceres Trust, which was the first foundation to start paying Shuumi. Its grantees include California Tribal Fund, Cultural Conservancy, Native Voices Rising and the Wukchumni Tribe, among others.

But the land tax has a special role, particularly as Indigenous peoples are working to steward their historic lands and bring back their traditional languages, said Gilje, the trust’s executive director.

“Shuumi is a powerful tool,” she told me. “It opens up a conversation about the history of this place — the genocide and the violence — and what it means to be living here now, as a settler, on this unceded territory.”

From taxes to partnering for “something better than we have today”

There is a hard truth behind the tax, one that everyone I spoke to echoed: “No amount of money will undo the damage that’s been done, bring back the lost lives or erase the suffering of the people,” as the land trust website puts it.

Yet the evidence of what is possible is growing. Powered by collaborations, donations and the land tax, Sogorea Te’ now stewards eight plots of land across the East Bay, with others in process. Some sites have fruit trees and native or medicinal plants, such as mugwort, soap root, chamomile and sage. Others feature urban gardening projects or artwork. One is a public park in Richmond that is on the site of a shellmound. Another hosts an arbor, a California Native ceremonial space, that the group says is the first in the region in more than 250 years.

Gould also shared another effort that is underway: creating the first Chochenyo language institute. The goal is to bring back a language that has been “asleep for almost 100 years,” she said.

While the land tax has garnered Sogorea Te’ plenty of attention and boosted its coffers, Gould emphasizes the importance of relationships. She would like the group to partner with linguists to work together on language understanding, coders who can develop apps for tribal members and engineers to enact their plans. Philanthropists, too, are on the list.

“If we allow ourselves to dream — if we don’t think within these structures that were created for us, sometimes without us — it allows us to say ‘yes’ to so much more. That’s what has helped us to grow, that we’ve said ‘yes,’” she said, on projects ranging from creek restoration to educational conversations. “It’s important that philanthropy also says, ‘Yes, let’s do this.’”

“To not be afraid to go to that ledge and say, ‘why not?’” she added. “When we dream together, we can only build something better than we have today.”