There is a treasured Cherokee adage where an old wise man is teaching his grandson life fundamentals. In this dialogue, he explains there is a battle inside of him between two wolves.
One epitomizes good; the other epitomizes evil. Upon hearing this, the grandson pauses to think and then asks, “Which wolf will win?” The elder Cherokee simply replies: “The one you feed”.
This timeless tale has made an indelible impression on activist and philanthropist Robert “Runningbear” Ramirez who grew up on a reservation and is fiercely committed to issues of tribal governance and sovereignty, and humanitarian pursuits. “I was a raised to make sure that whatever I did in life should be for the betterment of the tribe,” Runningbear says. “I believe that community mindset has helped me in my philanthropic work.”
Runningbear has dedicated his life to nurturing positive forces as a philanthropist for many charities, most actively with Project Angel Food. As an intriguing byproduct of his public-facing stature, many top fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton and Fendi have taken notice of his personal style and he’s organically evolving as a tastemaker.
Runningbear balances a quiet-fire demeanor and easy charm with fiery dedication to his culture, and to affecting positive change. His character and life trajectories have been shaped by his upbringing.
Runningbear was born in Victorville, California, but he grew up in Highland on a reservation with his family and their tribe, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. Today, his tribe is made up of 200 members, but back in 1891, when it was first officially recognized by the United States government, membership had dwindled down to 32, with the majority of the tribe having been killed off.
Maintaining community ties, but being able to affect change within larger populations has been a crucial lesson from Runningbear’s father. In 1998, when the California legislature passed Proposition 5 giving Native Americans the right to regulate gaming operations on their land, Runningbear’s dad was working in the front lines of political change. “He played a big part in that legislation getting passed,” Runningbear acknowledges. “I remember having dinner with governors and attending a lavish party at the Beverly Hills Hotel on the night of the vote. That was definitely the start of my own journey in influencing politics. My dad, to this day, is a big inspiration to me.”
At just 13, Runningbear became active within the tribe, and by 18 he had launched a successful campaign to secure a youth councilmen position. “I moved out at an early age, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, so that forced me to find a direction that resonated with me, and that was helping people,” he explains. When Runningbear was 21, he ran and won a position as a member of the Riverside San Bernardino County Indian Health Board. From there, he branched out to joining the operating board for First Nations Experience (FNX), which is a television station specializing in content produced and/or directed by Native Americans.
Today, Runningbear continues to live in Highland, California with his husband. He’s actively pursuing his charitable work, and cultivating his presence in fashion. Thinking about the legacy of his work, Runningbear says: “I really want to let people know how much good Native Americans do for others, and I want to ensure our voice is properly represented for the tribal generations now, and for those to come.”