Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance

Review by Lindsie Bear

Edgar Villanueva. 2018, 217 pages, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Oakland, CA.

Edgar Villanueva’s new book, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, opens with the perfect epigraph from activist, artist, and philanthropist Beyoncé. “If we are going to heal,“ she advises, “let it be glorious.”

In a scant 217 pages, over thirteen chapters, Villanueva deconstructs America’s settler colonialism and Native genocide, outlines how the country’s financial institutions have been made in the image of the enslavement that many of their assets were made on, then prescribes a seven-step path to healing the wounds inflicted by these institutions. It is a tour de force, or as Tia Oros Peters, executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples says in the praise pages, “an arrow to pierce the status quo.”

The text covers everything from historic trauma to investment theory, but far from dense or daunting, it reads like coffee with your best friend, if your best friend loved you enough to call you on your every moment of internalized racism and could liberally quote Ta-Nehisi Coates, superhero movies, South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, and his mother. (I happen to have a best friend who fits this description, and I highly recommend one. They are lifesavers. Villanueva’s book, however, is an awfully good substitute in a pinch.) “Philanthropy, honey,” Villanueva intones in his introduction, “it’s time for an intervention.”

For the sake of describing the book, we might want to do a cosmology exercise. Let’s assume, for the moment, that we each have a clear purpose and that our collective job as humans is to bring balance to the world. We are not separate from any living thing, and we have distinct roles in our ecosystems. Our needs are not at odds with the needs of other creatures, the water, the air, or the land. We balance, and adjust, listen, and rebalance as necessary. In this paradigm, which neither Villanueva nor I came up with, but which predates us on this continent by several thousand years, we are not separate from each other or the natural world. We are not inherently destructive, inherently greedy, or in need of being kept at arm’s length from our world to keep us or it safe. We are vital to the collective well-being of all things, because well-being is always collective.

Now imagine that there has been a major rupture in this job of ours as world balancers, and in our relationships, caused by a virus that makes us believe that our needs are at odds with the needs of everything around us. We have begun to see ourselves as separate, uprooted, in competition with one another. We are sick with this virus and lashing out at anything that thrives in order to suck up more nutrients than we need. “Violence and exploitation are always part of the process. The mantra of colonizers is to divide, control, and above all exploit,” Villanueva explains. To do our jobs in this paradigm, and balancing the world is an important job, we need to heal ourselves. “In healing we eradicate the colonizer virus from society: instead of divide, control, exploit, we embrace a new paradigm of connect, relate, belong.”

Part of the bravery, and joy, in reading the book is that Villanueva shares his own story of navigating the field of philanthropy. A member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, whose the “about the author” reveals “grew up in extreme poverty with a valiant single mother determined to see her son get the education that would change his circumstances,” Villanueva came to philanthropy via the seminary and public health sectors. I won’t summarize his experience, mostly because there are strict Native intellectual property laws in many of the Indigenous communities that I work in, which state that a person’s story is their own. It is for them to decide when and how it is shared, and the meaning is changed in each context. And our stories are precious gifts to give, full of our learnings, struggles, and dreams. I can say that the experience of reading Villanueva’s trajectory was for me deeply touching and searingly angering at times. To hear Villanueva and many of our colleagues of color whose voices ring in the pages recount the experience of being tokenized, devalued, torn down, held back, and marginalized within this field is downright upsetting and all too relatable.

The book is also replete with data and studies that back up Villanueva’s assertions that financial institutions continue to be hotbeds of colonization. This clearly is not Villanueva’s first philanthropic rodeo, and the book is substantiated with endnotes and glossaries, which make up a stellar further reading list. For me, the specificity of real stories from real people is exactly what our data-laden, quantitative, highly theoretical financial professions need. We need the reminder that there are real pain, real blood, real people on the other end of our grant and loan applications and in the offices next to us. And we are failing those in pain. The numbers Villanueva sites continue to tell the same story: “92 percent of foundation CEOs are white, 89 percent of foundation boards are white, while only 7–8 percent of foundation funding goes to people of color.… Three fourths of foundation full time staff are white.… [And] the proportion of money given specifically for African Americans and Natives actually decreased between 2005 and 2014. Despite changing demographics and increased societal awareness of the impacts of systemic racism, there has been no progress in expanding funding for people of color.” Cue statistical mic drop.

If these stories of inequity and colonialism sound familiar, I imagine you might find solace in the first half of the book — like minds sharing openly and specifically how institutional racism plays out in their day to day. I found myself nodding vigorously and relieved to hear these muddling experiences expressed with such clarity. Villanueva takes the hit for every staff person, grantee, loan applicant, and financial officer who would risk their own financial futures by calling out institutional racism with such precision.

If this ongoing oppression of your colleagues is news, then this section might feel a bit disconcerting, as Villanueva suggests, “like I’m yanking off the band-aid. There may be moments of discomfort. I invite you to sit with it, in the understanding that I am motivated by love and that things have been just as uncomfortable, if not really painful, for many of us for a very long time.”

If the term decolonizing sounds strange or terrifying, I highly suggest reading with the assurance that we are being offered truth with a kind touch. The world these folks are describing has been here, right next to you, the whole time. If it is painful to learn about, give yourself permission to exercise the first step Villanueva suggests for healing, and grieve. Really, it is okay to grieve the loss of a past that is shining with progress and a present that is safe and fair. Those pasts and present are fictions, but they are enticing ones. Enticing yet not accurate,1 and shedding that burden of dogma is a key to making a real impact, a real connection, and healthy world with our work. “We are not a healthy community unless we are taking care of everyone,” explains, Villanueva, “and I mean all our relations, inside and outside our tribe.”

Villanueva extends his generosity one step beyond giving us his own story and a factual assessment of how wealth was amassed and investments structured in the United States to support systemic racism. The second half of the book delves into his seven steps for healing ourselves and our work. The difficulty of learning about the inequalities and exclusions in the financial sector are the preparation for the healing. All healing takes some measure of sacrifice. The steps — grieve, apologize, listen, relate, represent, invest, and repair — each receive a chapter’s worth of unpacking.

They are deceptively simple. And as far as I can tell, they are meant to be sequential but not linear. “It’s not that Indigenous people were or are without strife or violence, but their fundamental worldview emphasizes connection, reciprocity, a circular dynamic.” A good career, a good life, could be made by repeating the steps again and again until they are habit. It is necessary to grieve first in order to listen well. Listening opens the possibility of relating. Relationships build the trust necessary to bring in real representation of the people most affected by the inequities and divides we are perpetuating. Investment by those representatives will be investments in a more just world. And then reparations can begin to be made. Fall down. Get back up. Start again. Or as my aforementioned best friend says, “Family is the process of rupture and repair. This is the family that you have.”

“In Native traditions, medicine is a way of achieving balance,” Villanueva reflects. “You don’t choose the medicine the elders say, it chooses you. It has taken me a long, long time (patience is a virtue in Indian Country) to accept that the medicine that has chosen me is money.”

I have to admit to being partial to Villanueva’s message of money as medicine when put back in the hands of the communities from which it was extracted. “Money should be a tool of love, to facilitate relationships, to help us thrive, rather than hurt and divide us. If it is used for sacred, life giving, restorative purposes, it can be medicine.” I am fortunate enough to work for a fund that was started by Native elders for Native people, and whose grant decisions have been made by community councils of traditional culture bearers for eighteen years. I get to see the depth of care and generosity that springs from communities that have the chance to use funds to heal themselves. These people are not empowered by a foundation. All of the power, all of the medicine is within them. The money is just one way they express it. Our fund, too, has continual decolonizing work to do. But I have seen how Villanueva’s theories of restorative financial justice work in practice, and it gives me the energy to face the mountains of repair work still to be done. And this fund is not alone. There are wonderful places, run by deeply caring Native leaders, who are leading the way in medicinal philanthropy.2

Looking at my bookshelves, I have been trying to come up with a genre description of Villanueva’s book, to give a sense of how to read it. It doesn’t fit squarely with the memoirs, those voyeuristic glimpses at the extraordinary lives of others, which we read passively and enviously. It is not a classic business book, coldly outlining a management style or time-efficiency program. It is too grounded in history to be self-help, and too pragmatic to be a work of historicity. It is meant to be read with empathy, I think, and then with purpose. It is, for me, most analogous to a worn, leather-bound copy of Audel’s Machinists Handbook that I have carried around for years. It is a how-to book of extraordinary beauty that is meant, no matter how lovely, to be used. At the foundation where I work, we will be reading Decolonizing Wealth as a book club, discussing a new chapter every few weeks. It will take forever to finish, and we will still only scratch the surface. If, in the end, we haven’t formulated plans and made changes based on Villanueva’s steps to healing, then we have failed the book as readers. The responsibility that comes with the gift of hearing another person’s story is our becoming accountable to that person and to the world that they envision. Being accountable to Edgar Villanueva’s story is to take up the challenge to make better institutions than we have inherited.3

The gift that Villanueva gives us, ultimately, is the opportunity to stand in our collective glory. It is the chance to see the sickness in our separation — the separation of our minds from our bodies, from one another as people, from the land and other living things that sustain us —and find a way back to our connections, to seeing one another as relatives and not resources. Like most medicines, like anything worthwhile, this healing requires sacrifice. It takes looking honestly at the wealth that we steward — looking at where it came from, whose land and whose backs it was made on, who we are to have the right to control it, where it is invested, and what world that investment is creating. It takes reaching out and making reparations to the communities that have been excluded from prosperity because their ancestors were forcibly removed, killed, enslaved, or traumatized in order for the wealth to be accumulated. And it takes the humility to note that decolonizing the world is not going to come from philanthropy. The financial field can make this shift go faster or slower, but it is not a savior, and decolonizing is not the work for saviors. So what happens after all of this work is done? What happens once we have heard, apologized, repaired, and healed? Can we even picture that place, whom we will have become to pull it off? Glorious, my friends, I believe it could be glorious.


  1. For a more through timeline of the development of philanthropy as a field and the inequities built into the foundations, see “Stifled Generosity: How Philanthropy Has Fueled the Accumulation and Privatization of Wealth,” Justice Funders,
  2. If your institution is interested in investing in Native communities and does not know where to start, please research the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, the Potlatch Fund, the First Peoples Fund, the First Nations Development Institute, Native Americans in Philanthropy, and Native Voices Rising, who, among others, have all been practicing healing philanthropy for many years.
  3. The website for Decolonizing Wealth has a page specifically for taking action: