“Build a Radically Different Future.” Six Questions for NDN Collective Founder Nick Tilsen

Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of the NDN Collective.

Nick Tilsen is the founder, president and CEO of NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization based in Rapid City, South Dakota, dedicated to building Indigenous power through grantmaking, organizing, activism, capacity-building and narrative change.

A citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, Tilsen grew up in an activist family and spent his early years in the Twin Cities area and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In 2007, Tilsen founded the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation — the first organization of its kind on the reservation. Five years later, President Barack Obama recognized Tilsen at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, saying, “Day by day, family by family, community by community, Nick and his nonprofit have helped inspire a new beginning for Pine Ridge.” 

Tilsen stepped down as CEO of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in 2018 to launch NDN Collective. In 2020, when then-President Donald Trump was scheduled to visit Mount Rushmore, the collective participated in a protest demanding that the monument be closed and the Black Hills returned to the Lakota people. Tilsen was among the protesters arrested, but charges against him were dropped last year.

Tilsen has received numerous fellowships and awards, including from Ashoka and the Rockefeller and Bush foundations, and the Social Impact Award from Claremont-Lincoln University. Tilsen has an honorary doctorate degree from Sinte Gleska University. He’s a strong advocate for philanthropy to build Indigenous power and back Indigenous self-determination.

I recently chatted with Tilsen about NDN Collective’s origin story, advice he’d give to his 20-year-old self, and the collective’s new podcast, Landback for the People. Below is a summary of our conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length.

How did NDN Collective come together?

The momentum started in the years leading up to Standing Rock when I was running the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation doing place-based and regenerative community development.

From about 2013 to 2016, over 70 Indigenous communities reached out to me about the work we were doing. A lot of those communities were trying to do something similar, but within the context of their own culture, climate and spirit of community. I was trying to figure out how to respond to all of these communities, and I thought, “I don’t have the capacity to help all of you, but if you come here, I’ll share with you everything that we’re trying to do.” 

Standing Rock itself was a catalyst because we watched the climate and environmental justice movements descend on our homelands, bring their infrastructure and then take it with them. I realized that Indigenous people didn’t have permanent movement and philanthropic infrastructure. We were the ones on the front lines taking the risks, but we weren’t building long-term infrastructure that could sustain Indigenous power-building movements for the long haul. 

Who are your biggest influences?

I’d say Tȟašúŋke Witkó, or Crazy Horse, is one of the biggest influences when I think about resistance and building a nation. I think that resistance is baked in the DNA of NDN Collective, but resistance isn’t just for the sake of resistance. You’re resisting to create a foundation for a better life, and I think that Crazy Horse did that.

The other biggest influences are my parents — my father, Mark Tilsen, and my mom, JoAnne Tall. They met at the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 and always had this philosophy that we have to be on the front lines, but at the same time, we have to be building the communities of tomorrow.

I also think about Che Guevara, who had a really good analysis of what was wrong with systems. He engaged in armed revolution to try to dismantle systems, but the most important part was his analysis, this idea that these systems will perpetuate unless you resist them, and so I connected to that. 

What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

That list is long, my friend [laughs]. When I was 20 years old, I didn’t know how long I was going to live, so there was an urgency to try to do everything, to try and make the biggest impact. I think that when we’re young, we’re so focused on the issue or the fight that we don’t always focus on the relationships. And so I would tell my younger self to not just be focused on the fight, but recognize that those relationships are building the foundation for long-term change far beyond when we’re not here anymore.

You were born into activism and founded the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation almost two decades ago. What makes you optimistic about the future based on what you’ve experienced?

In my short lifetime, I have been able to see Indigenous people reclaim and revive Indigenous languages, ceremonies and a culture of resistance in a way that pays respect to those who sacrificed their lives for us.

I think about that continuum of resistance. When you’re not having to fight for the right to practice your ceremony, all of a sudden you’re able to look forward to what this radical future can look like, because we’re not trying to just survive. Now, there’s a renaissance of many Indigenous languages and ceremonies, and this next generation is not just practicing them, but also applying them to our movement.

And then there’s the Standing Rock effect. It showed this generation that the world would be behind us if we united and fought. We now know that when we speak truth to power and organize ourselves, we have the ability to reclaim Indigenous power and have a positive effect not only on Indigenous people, but on the environment and all aspects of society, no matter what’s happened to us throughout history.

Now, unfortunately, I feel obligated to ask what makes you feel pessimistic.

I have concerns, but I don’t prescribe to pessimistic language. That’s not how I see the world. Anyone who works with me sees that, and it’s probably annoying [laughs].

But do I have worries? Definitely. I worry about not spending enough time building relationships for the long haul. I worry about the power structures that exist in philanthropy when we need to be dismantling some of these institutions. If we’re not dismantling, then we are perpetuating wealth hoarding at a time when the world needs us to invest in the people who take the risks to make catalytic change.

I think that sometimes philanthropy was created for self-perpetuation, and I worry that among philanthropy, there’s this perception that revolution is just a trend, that racial justice is a trend, that racial equity is a trend, when the reality is that they’re not.

Can you tell me a little bit about your new podcast, Landback for the People?

Land Back is a liberation framework for Indigenous people. It’s a mechanism, a narrative and a strategy to not only push against the power structures that oppressed Indigenous people and destroy the environment, but to allow us to build a radically different future.

It creates an onramp for collective liberation. We’re not saying, “Land back and everybody else go away.” We’re saying that this entire nation was built on the stolen lands of Indigenous people, and in the process, this democracy became one of the richest countries in the world at the expense of Indigenous peoples’ stolen land and the slavery of our Black brothers and sisters. That’s not folklore, that’s reality.

And so we started the Landback for the People podcast to recognize Indigenous resistance, how Indigenous people are reclaiming their lands, rebuilding their food systems, rebuilding their governance structures, rebuilding their identities, rebuilding the spiritual foundation and solving some of the most important problems facing our nation today. The podcast tells the stories of people who are doing this work in a true and authentic way.