Indigenous groups launch first national $1 million direct cash program for Native Americans during COVID-19 pandemic

Pictured: Edgar Villanueva, Lumbee, with youth from the Center for Native American Youth at a Decolonizing Wealth event in New York City.(Photo: courtesy Decolonizing Wealth)

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As federal government breaks promises to deliver relief funds to hard-hit Native communities, groups’ unprecedented program will directly transfer funds to individuals

News Release

Decolonizing Wealth Project

Oklahoma Native Assets Coalition

The Decolonizing Wealth Project, in partnership with Oklahoma Native Assets Coalition, announced that they will be moving $1 million in direct cash payments to Native Americans across the country in a targeted, national program to provide mutual aid for Indigenous communities hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis. The program launch comes amid the failure of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and the Trump administration to distribute millions in funds that were promised to Native tribes as part of the CARES Act. The direct cash model puts trust in the hands of recipients to determine what their needs are, providing a cushion of financial support that government programs have failed to provide.

$500,000 will be distributed to members of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina, $250,000 to Hopi artists from the Hopi Tribe through the Hopi Foundation in Arizona, and the remaining $250,000 to Native American communities Alaska, South Dakota, and Oklahoma. Approximately 2,000 Native families will be eligible for $500 one-time payments as part of the program, with recipients identified through a partnership with local Native-led organizations and tribes.

Two youth with the Chicago American Indian Center, a grantee, buying food for distribution.
Two youth with the Chicago American Indian Center, a grantee, buying food for distribution.(Photo: courtesy Decolonizing Wealth)

“The federal government has totally failed to address the grave situation in Native communities, directly resulting in the suffering and loss of life we’re seeing across the country,” said Edgar Villanueva, Lumbee Tribe member and founder of Decolonizing Wealth Project. “While corporations got a $500 billion bailout fund, Native communities were promised little and received even less. That’s why we are stepping in to care for our own communities and get cash in the hands of the people who need it. We cannot begin to heal from this devastation until we have the resources to protect homes and livelihoods.” 

The impact of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities has been disproportionate and devastating. The Navajo Nation has had the highest infection rate in the United States, while federal relief funds for Indigenous communities sat undistributed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. In the absence of federal government support, Doctors Without Borders dispatched a team for the first time within the United States to support relief efforts. In addition to the loss of life, tribes have lost an estimated $4.4 billion in economic activity and $997 million in wages, which will exacerbate existing economic disparities facing Native Americans as a result of structural inequalities.

Pictured: The Chief Seattle Club and the Seattle Indian Health Board doing COVID-19 testing - both are grantees.
Pictured: The Chief Seattle Club and the Seattle Indian Health Board doing COVID-19 testing - both are grantees.(Photo: courtesy Decolonizing Wealth)

Compounding challenges to address the pandemic in Indigenous communities is a lack of critical racial data on state and federal levels. The Lumbee tribe numbers are dangerously misrepresented in North Carolina; because the Lumbee tribe is recognized only on the state level, not federal, it does not qualify for some federal benefits received by other tribes, such as Indian Health Services, despite being the largest tribe on the East Coast. In Arizona, Hopi tribal leaders are attempting to respond to the surge there after initially being left out of coordinated efforts by the state and local hospitals. On a federal level, Native American tribes and organizations have been denied access to data that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been sharing with states.

This funding is the first national program to specifically serve Indigenous communities at this scale. The Decolonizing Wealth Project is a project of Edgar Villanueva, an author, philanthropy activist and member of the Lumbee tribe. This investment is particularly significant given the broad context of disinvestment in Indigenous communities; as reported by Native Americans in Philanthropy and Candid,“from 2002 to 2016, large U.S. foundations gave an average of 0.4 percent of total funding to Native American communities and causes.”

The program began administering funding on July 6th.

Led by Edgar Villanueva, the Decolonizing Wealth Project works to create hopeful and compelling alternatives to the dynamics of colonization in the philanthropic and social finance sectors. The Decolonizing Wealth Project supports Indigenous and other people-of-color-led initiatives working for transformative social change to shape a future in which we can all heal from generations of colonial trauma and thrive in our cultures.

The Oklahoma Native Assets Coalition (ONAC) is a nonprofit Native asset building coalition that works with tribes and partners interested in establishing asset-building initiatives and programs in Native communities, for the purpose of creating greater opportunities for economic self-sufficiency of tribal citizens. 

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