Making Change: Rebecca Adamson

Rebecca Adamson is an economist and advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world. She is the founder of First Peoples Worldwide and the founder and former director of the First Nations Development Institute.

Making Change: Rebecca Adamson


Rebecca Adamson was in her early 20s when she ran field operations for the Coalition of Indian Controlled School Boards in the early 1970s. The day that she was sent to evaluate a school in Hammon, Oklahoma she was dumbfounded, “All the Indian kids had this white adhesive, this surgical tape over their mouths.” she says, “I stopped cold. And I went up to the teacher and said, ‘What are you doing?’ and she said, ‘Everyone knows that Indians are savages, they disrupt the class.’” Adamson quickly pulled each Indian child out of that school and founded an independent Indian school. She has been fighting for indigenous rights ever since.

In this video produced for the PBS series, Makers: Women Who Make America, Adamson, who is half Cherokee, describes how she cut her teeth as a civil rights activist, fighting for legislation that gave tribal people the right to run education and government services for themselves. After extensive debate, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act was signed into law in 1975, providing tribal governments with the authority to administer federal funding and oversee their own law enforcement, health care, schools and social services. Eventually Adamson shifted from education to economic self-sufficiency. She got a masters degree in economics and founded two nonprofit grantmaking organizations — The First Nations Development Institute and First Peoples Worldwide — convincing her shareholders that “poor people are credit worthy.”


Adamson was an early social entrepreneur. She says that when she began The First Nations Development Institute at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1980, it was the first reservation-based microenterprise loan fund in the United States. And, working with the Calvert Foundation, she went on to create a type of bond called a “Community Investment Note.” When people buy these notes they are investing in a global portfolio of funds that finance nonprofits and mission-driven organizations. These notes have paved the way for more than $1 billion to flow into community development and social enterprises.

Most recently, First Peoples Worldwide has joined a coalition of over 130 investors, with more than $685 billion in assets to fight the funders of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The investor coalition is pressuring investors and banks that lend to Texas-based developer Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) to divest. The pipeline may be moving ahead, but the coalition wants to impede its progress in any way it can. “As governments increasingly prove incapable or unwilling to protect these things,” Adamson said, “citizens are turning to the market and the market is responding.”

See more stories in our Making Change series.

Gail Ablow


Gail Ablow is a producer for Moyers & Company and a Carnegie Visiting Media Fellow, Democracy.