Strengthening America’s Financial Literacy for Indigenous Communities

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Chrystel Cornelius of the Oweesta Corporation on the history of systemic oppression around access to capital for Indigenous communities – and what can be done about it.

Indigenous communities face multi-level barriers to thriving in US financial systems. First, the communities are governed by both the United States and their tribal affiliations, which creates unique structures for each group. But the laws point to a toxic mix of treaties and broken promises, leaving many unfounded for financial stability. Added to this is a hodgepodge of modern legislative shortcomings, political biases and lack of access to financial services.

In business since 1999, based in Colorado Westa Corporation is one of the oldest Native CDFI intermediaries in the United States, providing financial products and development services exclusively to Native CDFIs and Indigenous communities. Within indigenous communities, 86% do not have a single financial institution. Remote communities lack broadband Internet service.

Communities that access them often face racially insensitive financial, systemic, or service policies, despite legislative efforts to correct these practices. We recently spoke with Chrystel Cornelius, CEO of Oweesta Corporation, about the importance of providing financial literacy to Indigenous communities and the unique position of CDFIs to help them.

Why is it important to provide financial literacy to Indigenous communities?

Financial education is integral to the systemic oppression surrounding access to capital for Indigenous communities.

Indigenous people are also the least likely of any minority group to have emergency funds or a bank/checking account of any other minority population in the country. Thus, Indigenous families would not have access to the emergency loans needed to keep families housed, fed and safe during the pandemic crisis and its recovery period.

In this context, Indigenous communities face a disproportionate challenge in creating generational wealth and passing on financial management knowledge to future generations.

Financial education is important to our Indigenous communities because we are laying the foundation for lasting generational financial sustainability. Our traditional cultural practices are rooted in sophisticated resource management. When we combine these practices with Western financial management, as seen in our Building Indigenous Communities A suite of financial education programs, Indigenous families use traditional skills and modern financial language to navigate Western economic systems.

Unfortunately, financial education is not the all-encompassing solution to the barriers of financial inequality for Indigenous communities; it is a stepping stone on the long road to creating equity in the economic system of the United States.

What are you doing in this regard?

We accomplish this mission by following an integrated asset creation strategy. Oweesta provides training, technical assistance, investment, research and advocacy to help indigenous communities develop a range of asset-building products and services, including financial education and financial products .

How does this help?

Asset creation tools boost reservation economies by providing tribal members with the opportunity to learn financial skills and build assets through small business development, home ownership, education, etc

Oweesta demonstrates that financial education programs in Indigenous communities strengthen local economies one individual at a time. By teaching members of Aboriginal communities how to manage their assets, save for financial goals, take advantage of resources, and avoid predatory lenders, financial education programs contribute to the development of sustainable economies and healthy communities.

Given that the majority of Indigenous communities have traditionally operated in a ‘cash economy’, the provision of these skills is critical to advancing opportunities for asset creation. Through the provision of financial education programs and services, many tribal members have their first opportunity to learn about budgeting and the importance of credit, receive a copy of their credit report, and discover ways to generate community wealth, as well as tools to determine the amount of loan interest on credit.

Have you encountered challenges serving in the unique circumstances of tribal communities placed alongside systemic structures of local/state/federal government? Rural/remote service challenges?

The history of colonization in the United States has meant that Indigenous communities have largely been forcibly relocated to geographically isolated reservations. Due to these historical issues, Indigenous economies are heavily dependent on the arts, recreation, and hospitality (especially gaming) industries.

In many indigenous communities, more than 30% of tribal citizens are employed in the service sector, which has been so badly affected by COVID-19; this is compared to only 18% of the total US population.

The Indigenous Community Development Finance Institutions movement is leading the response to the capital needs of Indigenous communities. In most cases, these Aboriginal CDFIs were created to be the engines of economic development in their communities.

In 23 years of tracking impact, Oweesta found that more than $50 million had been invested in Indigenous communities through Indigenous CDFIs, resulting in 12,453 jobs created or maintained and 2,654 funded. small businesses across the country.

Over the past 20 years, Oweesta has worked to address issues affecting Indian Country by delivering innovative financial education programs to diverse indigenous communities.

The basis of this work is the Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families (BNC) curriculum, now in its 5th edition. Responding to the need for a culturally relevant financial education curriculum in Indian Country, Oweesta has created a student handbook, teacher development curriculum, and instructor’s guide to help teach financial education to students. accessible, effective and culturally appropriate way.

How important is collaboration with other community/civic organizations or stakeholders to your work?

All of our collaborative partners have been champions and strategic partners with Oweesta in building economic sovereignty for Indigenous communities across the country.

The collaboration is integral to supporting and expanding financial education and capital initiatives at Oweesta Corporation. We have partnered with tribal governments and Indigenous CDFIs to expand the reach of financial education services.

We have also been fortunate to build trusted partnerships with financial and philanthropic institutions who understand our guiding principles of empowering Indigenous peoples with the tools and resources to thrive on their own terms. It is through these partnerships that we are able to offer many of our programs for free or at low cost.

What goals do you have for future growth or initiatives?

Our ultimate goal is to eliminate ourselves from existence. We hope to see prosperous and self-sufficient indigenous nations.

In the near future, we are expanding our range of financial education programs. We are launching an advanced program for Building Indigenous Communities: Financial Coaching for Families to help Indigenous financial practitioners further develop their coaching skills in 2023.

We will also be rolling out the comprehensive Indigenous CDFI Practitioner Certification program. This program is designed to build the operational sustainability and organizational capacity of indigenous CDFIs across the country, through tailored instruction in financial management, lending, development services, impact monitoring, marketing, capitalization and more.

In addition to content tailored to Indigenous communities, we will create a learning cohort where practitioners can freely share the challenges of their unique operating environment. We consider this space to connect, learn and share as essential for our practitioners.

Hadassah Patterson has been writing for media outlets for more than a decade, contributing seven years to local news online and with 15 years of business writing experience. She currently covers politics, business, social justice, culture, food and wellness.

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