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Rebecca Adamson papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00481

Scope and Contents

The Rebecca Adamson papers are primarily related to her professional and public life. Types of materials include audiovisual materials, digital files, correspondence, datebooks, financial records, minutes, speeches, photographs, press releases, program files, publications, reports, journal and newspaper articles, subject files, artifacts, and memorabilia.

The bulk of the papers date from 1982 to 2007 and focus on two organizations founded by Adamson, First Nations Development Institute and First Peoples Worldwide. There is little personal material. Major topics found throughout these papers include American Indians, indigenous people, and economic development.

Portions of the work of FNDI are particularly well chronicled through detailed staff reports and records on Field Operations and the Lakota Fund. Trip itineraries and research notes document the hard work of raising funds to support First Nations' efforts.

In addition to the First Nations files, speeches, writings, and interviews elucidate the development of Adamson's "financial sufficiency approach" to economic development and her conception of "indigenous economics" as a model for sustainable development.

Records in Series II. Conferences and Meetings and Series IV. Organization Files document Adamson's active involvement in a wide variety of national and international gatherings, organizations, and boards.


ANA = Administration for Native Americans (US Dept of Health and Human Services)

ATNI = Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians

CFED = Corporation for Enterprise Development

CTUIR = Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation

FNDI = First Nations Development Institute

FNFP = First Nations Financial Project

HEAP = Human Economics in Action Program

KANA = Kodiak Area Native Association

NAP = Native Americans in Philanthropy

OEDP = Overall Economic Development Program

PRI = Program Related Investment

REIS = Reservation Economic Impact Study

TCEMP = Tribal Commerce and Enterprise Management Program

TCEP = Tribal Commerce and Enterprise Program

USET = United South and Eastern Tribes

WELRP = White Earth Land Recovery Project (Winona La Duke -Minnesota)

Oweesta = money (Mohawk)

Tiyospaye = extended family (Lakota)

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1941 - 2013


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Researchers were previously required to asign an access agreement before using box 51. That restriction was lifted in 2022.

Conditions Governing Use

The Sophia Smith Collection owns copyright to Rebecca Adamson's unpublished works; however, copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For instances which may regard materials in the collection not created by Adamson, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Rebecca Adamson was born in Akron, Ohio in 1949 to Barbara Crytz Hendrix and Robert Paul Adamson. Barbara Hendrix Adamson was Cherokee and Robert Adamson was of Swedish descent. Rebecca spent summers near Lumberton in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina with her maternal grandparents, from whom she learned Indian ways and values, at the Qualla reservation. After graduating from Firestone High School in Akron in 1967, she studied philosophy at the University of Akron and then took courses in law and economics at Piedmont College in Georgia. At twenty, she dropped out and spent much of the 1970s working on Indian reservations west of the Mississippi River where "many young, college-educated Native Americans from cities were joining forces with those who had preserved traditional ways." 1

Adamson first went to work for the Nez Perce in Idaho helping to find money for economic development projects. In 1970 she began working for the Coalition of Indian Controlled School Boards in Denver and became its director of field programs in 1972. The Coalition worked to "wrest control of Indian schools from the U.S. government and Christian religious groups that had been running them for more than 100 years."2 It was a system that took Indian children from their families and sent them to boarding schools where they were forced to assimilate and were often abused.

The Coalition's work led directly to passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975, giving American Indians the right to run their own schools, agencies, and programs, though the U.S. Government retained financial control. But the economic situation Adamson observed, "virtually no private sector…. Government…the dominant employer, poverty the reigning industry, welfare the surest means of support,"3 convinced her that "reservation tribes needed a similar voice in their economic growth."4

She was married for several years to Denny Hurtado, a Native American activist of the Skokomish Tribe, with whom she had a daughter, Neva, in 1975. They separated in 1977 and divorced in tribal court by 1979.

From 1976 to 1979 Adamson worked as a free-lance consultant traveling from project to project helping to develop tribal business skills. During this time, her marriage dissolved, her brother died of a painful illness, her lover was killed in a hunting accident, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer, and she lost her job. "I was sitting in bed and couldn't move, and my 3-year old daughter brought me an aspirin and a glass of water, and I thought, 'I've got to get it together.' If you stay inside yourself, you only go deeper and deeper."5

After moving back east to live with her parents, Adamson cashed her last unemployment check and went to New York City to seek funding for her proposal to establish a "Financial Self-Sufficiency Project" to support culturally appropriate economic development among American Indians. The first funder to respond was Susan Berresford at the Ford Foundation. With the resulting $25,000 grant, Adamson launched First Nations Financial Project in 1980 (re-named First Nations Development Institute in 1990) in Fredericksburg, Virginia, an organization that makes grants and loans, provides technical expertise, and does policy advocacy.

At the core of Adamson's work is the "financial sufficiency approach" in which profit is not the only factor considered in economic development. She insists that economic development must also consider human and cultural elements.

The initial grant allowed Adamson to field test her "financial sufficiency approach" through a pilot project on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the poorest place in the United States. A traveling exhibit of artwork by reservation children raised about $20,000 and allowed the Little Wound School to purchase necessities like warm winter coats. The funding also supported a study of the reservation economy by graduate student Richard Sherman. His work revealed that eighty-five per cent of the reservation's gross income was spent in border towns off the reservation, but also identified a vibrant informal economic sector made up of home-based businesses on the reservation. These businesses had no access to capital for expansion through traditional banks and other financing institutions, so First Nations Development Institute (FNDI) worked to establish a microenterprise loan fund. The Lakota Fund, established in 1986, was one of the first such loan funds in the U.S. It provided technical assistance and small loans to new and existing businesses on Pine Ridge Reservation. Once the Fund was firmly established in 1992, it became an independent organization.

FNDI's methods seek answers from within Native American communities as opposed to imposing solutions from the outside. FNDI's projects "build on a tribe's unique culture and resources at hand to work toward a more stable economic future."6 Interviewed for the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free-Lance Star in 1995, Adamson declared: "I want to show the brilliance, the creativity, the efficacy of Indian people."

One of Adamson's primary critiques of the government's approach to economic development on Indian reservations is its insistence on bringing inappropriately sized (and therefore unsustainable) projects to reservations. Her focus is on small and local, "economically do-able" projects which "grow the grassroots talents living on reservations." FNDI pursues these aims without any funding from the U.S. government.

Over the years, FNDI's efforts have combined national, state, and local policy advocacy; research; direct access to funding through loans and grants; technical assistance; and educational programs. The organization's work led in 1994 to passage of the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act, and the Reigle Community Development and Regulatory Improvement Act which established the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.

By the mid-1990s, Adamson began to turn her attention to struggles of indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world, particularly those related to land ownership, self-government, economic viability, and cultural preservation. The result was First Peoples Worldwide which originated as an international project of FNDI in 1996 and became a separate organization in 2007.

Beyond fostering self-sufficiency, Adamson contends that indigenous communities have much to teach the rest of the world about an economy of "enoughness." "We can never create an economy that's sustainable if we focus only on accumulation and growth, and don't focus on how to share the wealth."7 "Indian people are natural systems thinkers. We understand the interrelatedness of problems and can therefore design holistic solutions."8

Adamson earned a M.S. in economic development from New Hampshire College (now known as University of Southern New Hampshire), and developed and taught a graduate course on Indigenous Economics as part of its Community Economic Development Program.

Adamson has served as advisor to the United Nations on Rural Development, as the U.S. delegate to the United Nations International Labor Organization for International Indigenous Rights, as an advisor to the U.S. Catholic Conference's Campaign for Human Development, and as a consultant on Aboriginal development to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Australia.

In the corporate sector, Adamson has been a member of the Boards of Directors for the Calvert Social Investment Fund, a socially responsible mutual fund, the Calvert Foundation Board, and Tom's of Maine. She also co-founded the Calvert High Social Impact Investments, the first financial instrument whereby mutual fund shareholders and other individuals invest in community development loan funds. She is an advisor to the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) and to the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA).

Adamson has served in the non-profit sector on the Board of Governors for Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy, the Board of Directors for Corporation for Enterprise Development, the Bay Foundation, the Josephine Bay Paul and C. Michael Paul Foundation, the Bridgespan Group, the Board of Directors for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, the Council on Foundations Management and Investment Committee, the President's Council on Sustainable Development/Sustainable Communities Task Force, Independent Sector, the Ms. Foundation for Women, The Natural Step, and Earthday Network 2000.

She has been a member of the editorial boards of Indian Country Today, Native Americas, and for Akwe:kon Journal.

She was a founding member of Native Americans in Philanthropy, Funders Who Fund Native Americans, and International Funders for Indigenous Peoples.

In 1997 the Council on Foundations honored Adamson with its Scrivner Award for creative and innovative grant making and she was also the Ms. Foundation's Woman of the Year. She was named one of the top ten Social Entrepreneurs of the Year by Who Cares Magazine in 1998. In 2001 she received the Independent Sector's John W. Gardner Leadership Award. She was selected by the Virginia Foundation for Women as one of eight Virginia Women in History honorees in 2002. She was the 2003 National Women's History Month Honoree. In 2004 Adamson received a Doctorate in Humane Letters from Dartmouth College and the Schwab Foundation named her an Outstanding Social Entrepreneur. Adamson is featured in the 2013 PBS documentary Makers: Women Who Make America.


1. Ridley, Kimberly, "Indian Giver," HOPE Magazine, June 1997

2. Ridley, "Indian Giver," HOPE Magazine, June 1997

3. Margolis, Richard J., "America's New Entrepreneurs," The New Leader, 30 Nov 1987

4. "1970s 'visionary' now helping Indians take control," Richmond Times-Dispatch, 20 Jan 1997

5. Batz, Jeannette, "First Efforts," Riverfront Times, 19-25 March 1997

6. First Nations Financial Project brochure, undated

7. Ridley, "Indian Giver," HOPE Magazine, June 1997

8. Ford Foundation REPORT, spring 1997


26.333 linear feet (63 containers)

1.4742 Gigabytes

Language of Materials



Economist, Founder First Nations Development Institute, Native American rights advocate. Papers are primarily related to her professional and public life, and focus on two organizations founded by Adamson, the First Nations Development Institute (FNDI) and First Peoples Worldwide (FPW). Major topics include American Indians, indigenous people, and economic development. Portions of the work of FNDI are particularly well chronicled through detailed staff reports and records on Field Operations and the Lakota Fund. Speeches, writings, and interviews elucidate the development of Adamson's "financial sufficiency approach" to economic development and her conception of "indigenous economics" as a model for sustainable development. Conference, meetings, and organizations files document Adamson's active involvement in a wide variety of national and international gatherings, organizations, and boards.


This collection is organized into nine series:



This collection has been added to over time in multiple "accessions." An accession is a group of materials received from the same source at approximately the same time.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

This collection contains materials received from the donor in digital form that are not currently available online. Please consult with Special Collections staff to request access to this digital content.

As a preservation measure, researchers must use digital copies of audiovisual materials in this collection. Please consult with Special Collections staff or email to request the creation of and access to digital copies.

Custodial History

Processed by Maida Goodwin, Skyler Lawton, and Tiffany Peterson.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated by Rebecca Adamson, 2003-2017.

Related Materials

Processing Information

The contents of computer media in this collection has been copied to networked storage for preservation and access; the original directory and file structure was retained and file lists were created. Some floppy disks were unable to be copied.

Processing Information

Between September 2022 and February 2023, Smith College Special Collections renumbered many boxes to eliminate duplicate numbers within collections in order to improve researcher experience. A full crosswalk of old to new numbers is available.

Rebecca Adamson papers
Finding Aid
Finding aid prepared by Maida Goodwin, Skyler Lawton, Tiffany Peterson.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Processing of the Rebecca Adamson Papers was made possible by the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Peck Stacpoole Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:21-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2020-04-02: Description added for born-digital content.
  • 2020-06-26: Description added for born-digital content.
  • 2022-03-04: Integrated description of oversized materials
  • 2022-08-18: Removed restrictions on box 51

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063