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Cook Native American Ministries Foundation today: furthering Christian mission in Indian Country

Presbyterian Foundation subsidiary does ‘very well for us,’ director says

by Debra Utacia Krol for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Wendy Weston, at left, is executive director and CEO of the Cook Native American Ministries Foundation. Della Peña, at right, is the foundation’s board liaison and grants manager. (Contributed photo)

Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories featuring the Cook Native American Ministries Foundation. You can read the first story here.

LOUISVILLE — The Cook Christian Training School, one of the U.S.’s most well-known and renowned institutions dedicated to training Native people to become leaders in the church, closed its doors in 2008, leaving behind a 16-acre campus — and its mission of Christian ministry in Indian Country.

To fulfill this mission, the college’s board of directors created a solution: create a foundation with the proceeds from selling the old Cook campus in Tempe, Arizona.

In 2007, “The board of trustees for the school approved a plan to sell the land the school campus stood on,” says Wendy Weston, a Navajo Nation citizen who serves as the executive director and CEO of the Cook Native American Ministries Foundation.  “Using proceeds of the land sale, the Cook Native American Ministries Foundation was established in 2015. We administer a seed grant program to support Native churches and communities through programs and projects that continue the legacy of Charles H. Cook.”

The foundation is governed by a nine-member board of directors who come from tribal communities across the country. “We have elders; we have a young person,” Weston says. “We have two non-Native board members.”

One thing they all have in common: “They are all devoted and dedicated to the work that the foundation does,” Weston says. “They’re very supportive and committed to our mission.”

In addition to Weston, longtime Cook College staff member Della Peña, who is both Pima and Hopi, continues her more than 30 years of service with Cook as the foundation’s board liaison and grants manager.

And, just as the Cook School had a strong faith-centered purpose, so does the foundation that was born from the college’s more than 100 year history of serving God through supporting the Native ministry. “The foundation has a two-fold purpose,” says Weston, whose career has centered on nonprofit management and working in the nonprofit world. “We function as a nonprofit organization, and we have programs and initiatives implemented through the nonprofit arm.”

Foundation awards grants

One of the foundation’s major initiatives is grant-making. The foundation, one of the largest Native American philanthropic organizations in the Southwest, supports several current projects and is seeking more.

Cook Native American Ministries Foundation awarded its first grants in 2015, Weston says, and is currently accepting proposals through July 31. CNAMF will review and award funding for projects over the fall and winter. Find out more about the submission process here.

Seed Grant Program

The foundation’s newest initiative is designed to grow strong, healthy communities. “We developed the Seed Grant Program, which awards grants of up to $10,000 to small tribally-based or community-based organizations or churches that have nonprofit status,” says Weston. “We can also support organizations that have a fiscal agent, especially through a church.” The program provides the “seed to plant a program” that will address leadership and social justice solutions to the challenges that are in those communities, Weston says, and supports “the efforts of people to realize healthy and happy communities.”

Underpinning these initiatives are understanding and accepting that the values of Christianity are all interwoven into these programs, she says.

The foundation also honors and upholds the concepts that Native cultures and Christian values share many commonalities and are not mutually exclusive. “Celebrating together as humans in the spirit that’s guided by the principles of Christ’s teaching also apply to Native communities,” Weston says. “If you talk to our Native elders, you’ll learn that many teachings align directly with Christianity. We’re all meant to be here, to be integrated, and we’re meant to be together.”

Weston adds that when visiting a Native community, reverence, respect, prayer and holy teachings are central themes to Indigenous peoples. “We always acknowledge the presence of God through prayer and thanksgiving,” she says.

CNAMF Sponsorship Program

The foundation also has a sponsorship program, which aims to build goodwill and to raise awareness of “who we are, what we do and that we support programs and events that we see are making positive changes in our communities,” she says.

Some of the programs and initiatives CNAMF supports includes Scottsdale Community College’s American Indian Program, which trains Native leaders for community service. CNAMF is a member of the Arizona Interfaith Movement. And the foundation provides sponsorship for Keeping Teachers Teaching. “It’s a grassroots nonprofit that celebrates, applauds and salutes the important but oftentimes under-recognized work of teachers,” Weston says of that final foundation.

Cook descendants still involved

The family connections that are at the heart of Cook’s mission are still intact. “Rev. Stephen Marsh, who is on our board of directors, is a great-great grandson of Charles Cook,” says Peña. “It’s great to have him on our team because he fills us in on history as well as assisting with this organization.”

The resources realized from the sale of the Cook campus are in the secure hands of CNAMF’s financial steward, the New Covenant Trust Company, N.A., which is part of the Presbyterian Foundation. “They hold our investments and they do very well for us,” Weston says. The income from the fund is earmarked for CNAMF’s work.

However, Weston says that CNAMF also welcomes donors wishing to support the foundation’s work. “We’re currently building a planned giving program for people who like what we’re doing and who would like to contribute to our cause of educating Native people while being in a Christian-based environment,” Weston says. Shew grew up in an Episcopalian home, but also honors her Navajo cultural ties. “There were a lot of people who donated to the school and we plan to grow this following through our efforts.”

Looking forward into the CNAMF’s future, “I’d like to see us develop and implement more programs that we can offer to not only our Native communities but to the global community,” Weston says, “and to also look and think critically, to contribute the public discourse on religion and society and how those things affect our jobs, our education and our lives.”

She also notes that although the foundation is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) because of its ties with founder Charles Cook, it’s also non-denominational in its support. “We support all faiths,” she says.

“We’re very excited about new possibilities for us as we move forward,” she said.

And Peña says, “our mission has always been to support other ministries whether it be the school or the foundation.  “We’re still doing that.”

Debra Utacia Krol reports on Native issues, environmental and science issues, and art. She is an enrolled member of the Xolon (also known as Jolon) Salinan Tribe from the Central California coastal ranges. Krol writes for Indian Country Today, High Country News, Huffington Post, The Revelator, VICE News, Winds of Change Magazine (the journal of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society) and other publications. She lives in the Phoenix area.

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