Interview with Amy Fredeen

AmyFredeenIFIP Board of Directors has a new Chair, Amy Fredeen.  Of shared Inupiaq and German heritage, Amy strongly believes in the value of bringing traditional wisdom into the modern world. She serves her Alaska Native community in a number of ways: as a mother, as a mentor, as a life-student, and as the Executive Vice President and CFO of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC). In the following dialogue, Amy shares some of her views on Indigenous Philanthropy, IFIP and the world.
How did you get involved with IFIP?
With my background in working with non-profits, I was asked to join first as a member of the Finance Committee, and later invited to serve on the board. Once I was introduced to IFIP’s mission, work, and of course Evelyn Arce, I knew this was an organization that I wanted to stay involved with.
What led you to Indigenous Philanthropy?
Indigenous Philanthropy can be defined in a number of ways. For me, it is something My People have been doing for millennia; it is interdependence and reciprocity. These are inherent values in many Indigenous cultures. Therefore, I don’t know if you could say I was led to Indigenous Philanthropy or if it is something that made the connection to IFIP a natural fit for me.
You are now the Chair of the IFIP Board of Directors. How do you characterize this role and what is your vision for IFIP?
The Board Chair works in partnership with the Executive Director to help keep the mission of IFIP moving forward. The role incorporates being a sounding board, a mentor, and the person who ensures the sometimes hard but strategic conversations happen.
IFIP is an organization that provides the path and connections to meaningful engagements with Indigenous Communities.  IFIP creates connections that make a ripple effect in communities around the world. There is often talk about increasing the level of funding to Indigenous Communities; that is not enough.  It has to be based on partnerships that work hand in hand with Indigenous Communities, traditional wisdom and values. IFIP is the organization that sparks the fire that leads to meaningful impact. I am happy to serve and support IFIP.
What is your view on Indigenous Philanthropy today? Where is it going?
Philanthropy is something that constantly changes; there are shifts in focus, shifts in connections, and shifts in depth of impact. There are pockets of Indigenous Philanthropy which are successful as they are built on meaningful partnerships between the funder and the Indigenous Community. Where it doesn’t work is where there is an expectation, on either side, that the mere act of funding will bring about a lasting impact. Indigenous Philanthropy recognizes that Indigenous Peoples are not merely coming with their hands out, but really with their hands full; full of knowledge and wisdom that can be shared with the world. These are gifts from Indigenous Peoples and philanthropy is a way to tap that unrecognized potential.
There is a Dena’ina Athabascan word “nggh’gen/lnik” (pronounced “googenshnik”) which translates as “a gift from me to you,” it means going both ways, a reciprocity of giving. Meaning by giving to you I learn something too. That is what Indigenous Philanthropy is all about.
Who is your role model and why?
I have said this time and time again. My role model is my mother. She has had such a hard life, faced many challenges and has been so resilient, strong, and loving. I couldn’t ask for a better role model.
Share with us something your mother did that inspired you, and shaped you into who you are now.
My mother had always impressed upon me through her actions and relationships the idea that family was more than a lineal DNA connection, and was rather the result of ties we build with those around us. I hope I can do the same for my children. In many ways, this value mirrors traditional rural Alaska Native life, where your support network is your community which serves an extended family.  Common stories and experiences, shared laughter and grief create strong bonds that help shape each individual and the entire community.
Many people define success in terms of income, career growth, or power. My mother was much richer in the traditional sense. She had a wealth of family, friends, and warmth. I knew growing up that she had a tough life, but she never let it be an excuse for being poor in spirit. She also never let me settle or make excuses for myself. She taught me how to be a leader and a mother in this way. I have a son who went completely deaf, and I draw on her wisdom to keep my son for using his hearing as an excuse to be poor in spirit or as an excuse not to succeed. I am a strong mother and woman because of her.
What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about my family, Our People and seeing ways I can help be a part of bringing our traditional wisdom to a modern world that has changed the path of Our People forever. I think there is a danger of being too extreme, either too modern or failing to recognize that adaptation is required.  Adaptation has been a cornerstone of survival for Alaska Native People (how else would we have survived in such harsh climate?), but we need to acknowledge change is coming and we have to be the ones steering how we adapt as a People.
You mentioned using traditional wisdom in the modern world. Can you elaborate on this idea?
Wisdom isn’t just a set of knowledge and facts, it is the experiences of the past, good or bad, that build us as individuals, communities, and as a People. The challenge in truly engaging traditional wisdom is that it takes time and deep connections. Once those deep connections are made, the gifts of knowledge received are tremendous and cannot be measured in outcomes alone. Beyond the impact you can make in a community with traditional wisdom, the individuals involved come away all the richer in experience and wisdom.
Here is an example of how Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) has brought traditional wisdom into our services. The Alaska Native population suffers from disproportionately high rate of substance abuse issues. When CITC was looking at ways to improve the outcomes for our residential substance abuse treatment center, we looked at best practice models. None of them seemed to fit 100%. We saw that many recovery services were using community of care models. While adequate for other populations, we realized something was missing in those services models for Our People. CITC looked to traditional wisdom, traditional ways of support, and traditional community models, and realized that the traditional village support network could be recreated in a service model. CITC incorporated the traditional values and village council structures in what is now a recognized best practice called the Village of Care. This service model realizes higher success rates for recovery services than the national average, and helps our participants in treatment feel connected to each other, to the community and valued as an individual.
The real key is to think beyond the basic level of how Indigenous Peoples do things, but more about the how they are as a community and their underlying values.
What is one of the most exciting projects you worked on and why?
The most exciting project I have been involved with is one I am currently working on. CITC started the first Indigenous Owned Video Game Company. I am part of a team that is developing a video game based on traditional Inupiaq stories. I have to admit I was nervous at first at seeing my culture “put” into a video game. However, it has been amazing to see the inclusive development process used to create the game. The process ensured this wasn’t an appropriation of a culture but rather was a true partnership that honors elder wisdom, traditional values, and connects with a new audience. This game, which will be released in September 2014, will be an invitation to engage in a new method of storytelling.
What is your message to IFIP supporters and potential allies?
I would really like to invite everyone to engage with IFIP, so that they can talk about how they make those deep connections with traditional wisdom. Bringing traditional wisdom into the future is the key to keeping cultures alive and solving many of the social and environmental problems we face today.  There are members of IFIP who are phenomenal in working with these deep connections, and IFIP is your connection point to those paths.
I have a prayer I use, when I am asked to give the prayer at events:
Creator, give us the wisdom to recognize the path we walk on which was made possible by those who came before us and we are mere caretakers for those who will follow.”
I invite you to come be caretakers in the most appropriate way.