Youth from the Chicago American Indian Center, a Decolonizing Wealth project grantee, buying food for distribution.

Youth from the Chicago American Indian Center, a Decolonizing Wealth project grantee, buying food for distribution.

Native American communities have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic—in June, the Navajo Nation had the highest infection rate in the country compared to individual states. In May, Doctors Without Borders responded to this emergency by sending a team into the U.S. for the first time. Meanwhile, relief funds from the CARES Act to Native communities have been significantly delayed.

Philanthropy activist and author Edgar Villanueva, who is a member of the Lumbee Tribe, has initiated several responses to this problem, including a rapid-response fund and a new cash relief initiative.

The Decolonizing Wealth Project he founded, which shares the name of his 2018 book, works to support Indigenous and other people-of-color-led social change initiatives. The project runs a giving circle called Liberated Capital that now hosts a COVID-19 rapid-response fund to provide emergency support for Native American-led and -serving groups. Liberated Capital is a giving circle with a donor-advised fund structure, but one that offers a high degree of transparency, unlike the norm that Villanueva recently critiqued in a guest post for Inside Philanthropy.

The National Urban Indian Family Coalition and Native Americans in Philanthropy (NAP) are partners in this fund. Villanueva is board chair of NAP and senior vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation in Massachusetts. He says the fund has awarded $700,000 to Native-led relief efforts by 62 organizations in 18 states, impacting about 500,000 individuals.

On July 6, Villanueva announced the release of funds from the Decolonizing Wealth Project for another pandemic response effort: a $1 million direct cash program for Native Americans, distributed in the spirit of mutual aid. About 200,000 families will receive $500. Both mutual aid and cash relief have surged during this national emergency, resulting in more no-strings-attached infusions of money, and new peer-to-peer webs of giving that center interpersonal connection, trust and individual well-being.

As we recently covered, funders like the Schultz Family Foundation and have recently made direct money disbursements. is a veteran in this field, having distributed more than $25 million in this manner since 2012, when it made its first unconditional transfers in Kenya through GiveDirectly. Of course, the U.S. government also recently provided some direct relief to citizens in the form of stimulus checks.

“There is something powerful about giving individuals choices, and through those choices, power to make decisions that put them in control of their circumstances and empowers them to own the solution. Direct cash transfers acknowledge the humanity in the recipient,” Hector Mujica,’s economic opportunity lead for the Americas, told Inside Philanthropy in June.

Villanueva says cash assistance shows that investment in people “is fundamental toward recovery from the pandemic and toward the future of our communities.” But he says this giving strategy doesn’t disregard the role of Native-led nonprofits or tribal sovereignty.

“We will never be safe from COVID-19 until we have a safety net in place… the U.S. government must honor treaties and fully fund the Indian Health Service… the real promise is in what the government can and should do in the longer term,” he says. “I think big philanthropy can play an advocacy role in pushing the government to do its part.” Indigenous communities receive a minuscule portion of foundation giving (0.4%).

Villanueva is a proponent of using “money as medicine” to right societal wrongs, and he has previously advocated for direct individual support. In “Decolonizing Wealth,” he called for U.S. financial and philanthropic institutions to undertake a multistage process of healing and reconciliation with communities of color. He suggested several types of possible amends, including the creation of a communal tithe and fund by U.S. foundations.

"The institutions of philanthropy as a whole could take 10% of their assets—10% tithed from each foundation in existence—and establish a trust fund to which Native Americans and African Americans could apply for grants for various asset-building projects, such as homeownership, further education or startup funds for businesses… No strings attached,” he wrote.

Direct Support for Tribal Members

Many Indigenous communities lack access to adequate clean water and air, energy and healthcare infrastructure, among other longstanding inequities that worsen their vulnerability to COVID-19. Meanwhile, the prevalence of multigenerational family homes can make distancing close to impossible. Along with widespread infection, tribes have recently lost billions in economic activity and millions in wages during shutdowns.

The Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina, to which Villanueva belongs, is the largest on the East Coast. But it’s only recognized at the state level, so it does not qualify for some federal benefits, including those from the Indian Health Services. Members of this tribe will receive $500,000 in direct cash relief. The remaining $500,000 will be split between Hopi artists through the Hopi Foundation in Arizona, and Native American communities in Alaska, South Dakota and Oklahoma.

We asked Villanueva how it felt to be able to support his home community at this time.

“So excited,” he said. “[We] are a proud people, rich with culture, traditions and history, including a legacy of fighting for civil rights. In all of the advocating I do around the world for Native peoples, I am first and foremost a Lumbee, and it’s important to me that some of my work actually benefits my home community and my people. It feels really good.”

Other Funding for Native Communities

The nonprofit NDN Collective is also giving money to Native communities at this crucial juncture—it recently approved more than $2.5 million in grants for more than 95 partners in 23 states, which it says will impact at least 200 Indigenous communities. It has also made $450,000 in grants for Indigenous artists and entrepreneurs, and is now taking applications for a Radical Imagination grant program for Indigenous artists/culture bearers.

We know women are especially vulnerable to the pandemic’s many negative effects, especially women of color. Villanueva previously told us, “Indigenous women are on the front lines of response efforts in our communities. They are elders, mothers, medical professionals, tribal leaders, protectors, nonprofit executives, activists and entrepreneurs—sometimes all at once.”

In April, we asked Vanessa Roanhorse how grantmakers could help Native women at this time. She is the CEO of Roanhorse Consulting, and she co-founded the nonprofit Native Women Lead. Among many ideas, she recommended funders reach out to Native-led organizations and their allies, such as NAP. She said funders should give general operating support, engage in public-private partnerships, and consider backing groups without 501(c)(3) status. She also believes in direct cash payments and suggested giving money to individual women. Native Women Lead’s Matriarch #GiveTogetherFund provides an unrestricted $500 directly to the households of New Mexico-based Native American entrepreneurs that have been impacted by the pandemic.

Solidarity Between Movements

NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen was recently arrested during the protests of President Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Native Americans have often demonstrated at this site because the land was seized despite treaties with the U.S. government, as PBS reports. Tilsen has since been bailed, out but faces multiple charges.

Villanueva tweeted out his support for bail funds for those arrested. Bail funds for protestors represent a poignant juncture between Native American activism and the current widespread racial justice movement led by and centering Black Americans.

In June, Villanueva posted a message of support for this movement on the Liberated Capital site, stating that the circle would devote new funds “toward our mission of racial healing… We will not remain silent, but will stand in solidarity and expend our power, voice and money for the cause of dismantling white supremacy and to support healing across our communities.” The circle’s first related grants went to Reclaim the Block and the Black Visions Collective in Minneapolis.

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