Seconds into a conversation, Toni Lodge taps into humor. She’s a natural storyteller, too.
But other clues about Lodge soon surface, such as her tenacity and passion for community when talking about the past 30 years of her work in Spokane.
Lodge, 63, is CEO of the NATIVE Project on West Maxwell Avenue in the West Central neighborhood. The center offers integrated medical and behavioral health services, a dental clinic and pharmacy. But there’s more, such as its ongoing work for Native children and youth.
That focus started it all – with summer camps, leadership development and behavioral health.
“Her impact on the Native American community in Spokane has been formative and by extension, our entire community has benefited,” wrote Dr. John McCarthy. “She has been a champion for the disenfranchised and voiceless.
“She began working on the concept of Native empowerment in Spokane 32 years ago. She helped create a vision of the NATIVE Project.”
A member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe, Lodge grew up in North Dakota and Montana. She moved to Spokane in 1979, at first visiting a sister here. She soon discovered a broader family.
“I found a very robust urban Indian community here with lots of leaders,” Lodge said. “They had resources; they were very welcoming. I thought, this is an interesting place.”
A thriving Native American community still exists, she said, perhaps not in the way people think.
“In our clinic here, we serve people from over 300 tribes, so there are lots and lots of Native people who live in Spokane,” Lodge said. “That’s probably our best kept secret, but it’s very connected, very supportive and very thriving.”
Looking at her span of work, Lodge credits an early career as a journalist for shaping her as a person and developing strong writing and storytelling skills to describe community needs.
During the 1970s, she worked as a reporter for Knight Ridder and also in the United Tribes Technical College’s communications office in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Covering stories then coincided with a strong Native American social movement and impactful federal legislation, she said, such as the Indian Civil Rights and Self-Determination and Education Assistance acts.
“As a young newspaper reporter, I got to cover all the exciting political and social change of the ’70s up close,” she said.
“It very much shaped who I am as a person, about the possibility of positive social change, that there is nothing impossible if we organize, and commit spirit and time and resources to making it happen.”
Bismarck also gave her experience “being an urban Indian” before Spokane, she said. That’s when she laughed again. “They have much better snow removal in Bismarck than in Spokane.”
Here, she worked for a regional tribe, the YWCA and then in a pivotal job for Spokane Public Schools’ Indian Education Program. Working with kids and families, she saw unmet needs.
“Even though we had a robust community, we didn’t have a lot of resources for Native kids. They were getting left out. Our graduation rates were low. Our suicide was high. There were no substance abuse treatment programs.”
She and other Spokane Native American professionals met regularly to seek solutions. In 1985, the group created the Indian Youth Leadership Program as a core organization.
By 1989, she and other leaders decided to create the nonprofit NATIVE Project to provide services such as leadership camp, licensed adolescent substance use disorder treatment, mental health services for children and adolescents, and family counseling and education.
Lodge weaves storytelling into that humble start.
“We all passed the hat one day,” she said. “We got $100, and our accountant who is still our accountant told us that to apply for a Secretary of State license and to apply for 501(c)(3) status, we’re going to need $125.
“One of our board members donated an old car; we took it up to the Kalispel Tribe Powwow and raffled it off. We got like $200, so we had enough to incorporate, and that was 1989. Last year our budget was $10 million. It’s such a community effort. It wasn’t a Toni Lodge effort.”
In the mid-’90s, an urban Indian health center in Spokane closed, meaning patients had to drive to Indian Health Service clinics in Worley or Wellpinit. In 1999, the NATIVE Project opened a medical clinic in Spokane.
The NATIVE Project’s clinic is funded by Indian Health Services and the Health Resources and Services Administration. About eight years ago, it became a federally qualified community health center, with services available to everyone, not just Native Americans.
Along with storytelling skills, Lodge isn’t afraid to speak publicly.
“I’ve written millions and millions of dollars’ worth of grants,” she said. “Writing is my superpower. I learned it taking people’s stories down. When I write a grant, it’s like telling a story.
“I think oratory storytelling is a traditional Native value. I think of all the Native stories, and people who were able to stand up and speak truth.”
Doing that, while working hard, means getting invited more often to the tables of community discussions, she said, “but there are still tables we don’t get invited to.”
One of her goals is to help people who go unheard get heard, from women and people of color to those in poverty.
She also believes in mentoring others and is known for supporting Native American artists, with multiple pieces adorning the NATIVE Project. She and other employees encourage community activities, from dancing to drumming.
Over the years, she’s watched children go through camps and leadership programs, graduate from college and work in different fields, some at the NATIVE Project or elsewhere.
In her personal life, Lodge jokes her other “superpower” is being a grandma. She has three adult children and 10 grandchildren. Lodge enjoys going places with grandkids, friends and her 80-year-old mother.
“There’s always something new to try, and that’s my hobby,” Lodge said.
She credits the NATIVE Project’s growth to the nonprofit’s fiscal responsibility, balanced with its mission.
First there was a tiny building. Then it saved enough to buy bits of property until owning half a block. In 2007, the group erected its current structure. Vandalism doesn’t occur.
“I think it’s because we don’t treat people bad,” Lodge said. “Sacred hospitality, that’s our mission and the way we want to treat people.”
The NATIVE Project’s logo has seven stones and four feathers, embracing generations.
“From that Indian perspective, that’s what the seven stones are, thinking of seven generations ahead,” she said. “The four feathers are four directions. If you’re really thinking about the future, it has to be about the kids.”
It’s also about creating community, added Lodge, citing studies about people living longer because they have strong relationships: “The community owns this. It’s not just the Native community, we serve people of all ethnicities now, which is awesome.
“I loved seeing the building built. I’d love to see another building while I’m still here. I’d like to have a children and youth services center, so we can create more activities for children and youth,” she said. “That’s my next goal.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.