Someday Veronica Willeto hopes to start a nonprofit organization that will better empower native communities.
Willeto was able to learn the ins and outs of the nonprofit world through a fellowship this summer with the Indian Law Resource Center based in Helena.
The ILRC is a legal advocacy organization based in Helena and Washington, D.C., that supports Indian tribes and indigenous communities in the Americas.
The center was a notable participant in the push for the United Nations’ adoption of its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and was awarded the Justice Prize from the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation in 2010.
Willeto is the second person to receive the center’s Barbara L. Anthony Fellowship, which was established last year in honor of its former development director, who died in 2012.
Willeto, who grew up in New Mexico as a member of the Navajo Nation, spent much of her eight weeks at the center writing grants and communicating with various funders and partner foundations, she said.
She also helped draft and edit a handbook that will provide information on tribal culture and resource rights to conservation groups who have little experience working with them.
Tribes and conservation groups often share values, she said, though their history of interaction has been mixed. Willeto said she hopes the handbook will “encourage more conservationists to consider the possibility that you can work successfully with tribes and that the relationship can be mutually beneficial.”
Successful partnerships ensure the tribes are involved in managing their resources and land, she said.
Willeto said the ILRC fellowship allowed her to learn a different set of skills required in community development than some of her previous work.
“I think it’s a really unique way to combine policy, law and nonprofit administration,” she said.
Before joining the center, Willeto worked on a project called Schools of Promise through the state Office of Public Instruction, which works to improve struggling schools around the state. In Montana, schools that qualify for the federal grant that funds the project tend to be located on reservations.
She worked to build up a program within Schools of Promise that connects teachers and parents in ways that extend beyond the traditional parent-teacher conference. The program encourages teachers to reach out to parents, often meeting with them in their homes. The idea is that a more positive relationship between the two will result in stronger support for students.
She said applying the program to three schools on reservations in Montana posed particular challenges, sometimes requiring that it be tailored more closely to the needs of the community.
Willeto’s interest in helping native communities brought a Fulbright research fellowship in 2008, for which she traveled to Botswana to study the problems and potentials of indigenous cultural tourism.
There she spoke with NGOs and local San community members, sometimes referred to as Bushmen, about their experience with a growing tourism industry that can either exploit or empower them.
After finishing up at the ILRC, Willeto said she plans to move to eastern Montana to pursue community organizing work.