Empowering American Financial Literacy for Indigenous Communities

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

Indigenous communities face barriers on multiple levels to succeed in America’s financial systems. First, communities are governed by both US and their tribal affiliations, which creates unique structures for each group. But the laws revert to a toxic mix of contracts and broken promises, leaving many without a foundation for financial stability. Added to this are a host of contemporary legislative gaps, policy biases and lack of access to financial services.

Operating since 1999, headquartered in Colorado Oweesta Corporation is one of the longest established CDFI intermediaries in the US, offering financial products and development services exclusively to Native CDFIs and Native communities. Within indigenous communities, 86% do not have a single financial institution. Remote communities lack broadband internet services.

Access communities 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 how CDFIs are uniquely positioned to help.

Why is it important to offer financial literacy to indigenous communities?

Financial education is an integral part of systemic oppression around access to capital for indigenous communities.

Natives 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. Therefore, indigenous families would not have access to the emergency loans necessary to keep families housed, fed and safe through the pandemic crisis and its recovery period.

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

Financial education is important to our Native communities as we build the foundation for lasting generational financial sustainability. Our traditional cultural practices are rooted in sophisticated resource management. When we bridge these practices with Western financial management, as seen in ours By building a suite of financial education curricula for Indigenous communities, Indigenous families take traditional skills and modern financial language to navigate Western economic systems.

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

What are you doing about it?

We achieve this mission by following an integrated asset building 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 building tools stimulate the reservation economy by providing tribal members with the opportunity to gain financial skills and build assets through small business creation, home ownership, education and more.

Oweesta shows that financial education programs in indigenous communities strengthen the local economy one by one. By teaching Indigenous community members how to manage their assets, save toward financial goals, leverage resources, and avoid predatory lenders, financial education programs contribute to the development of sustainable economies and healthy communities.

As most Indigenous communities have traditionally operated within a ‘cash economy’, the provision of these skills is essential to enhance asset building opportunities. By providing financial education programs and services, many tribal members have the opportunity for the first time to learn about budgeting and the importance of credit, receive a copy of their credit report, and discover avenues to generate community wealth, as well as tools to determine loan interest rates.

Have you encountered challenges serving the unique circumstances of tribal communities located adjacent to systemic local/state/federal government structures? Rural/remote service challenges?

The history of settlement in the United States has meant that indigenous communities have mostly been forcibly relocated to geographically isolated reservations. Domestic economies are – because of these historical problems – heavily dependent on the arts, recreation and accommodation (especially gaming) industries.

In many indigenous communities, over 30% of tribal citizens are employed in the service industry, which has been so catastrophically affected by COVID-19; this compares to only 18% of the total US population.

The Community Development Financial Institutions movement is leading the response to capital needs in Indigenous communities. In most cases, these original CDFIs are established as engines of economic development in their communities.

In 23 years of impact tracking, Oweesta found that over $50 million has turned into Native communities through Native CDFIs, leading to the creation or retention of 12,453 jobs and 2,654 small businesses funded across the country.

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

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

How important is cooperation with other organizations or stakeholders from the community/citizens for your work?

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

The collaboration is an integral part of supporting and expanding financial education and capital initiatives at Oweesta Corporation. We have built partnerships with tribal governments and Native CDFIs to expand the reach of financial education services.

We have also been fortunate to establish trusted partnerships with financial and philanthropic institutions that understand our guiding principles of arming Indigenous people with the tools and resources to thrive on their own terms. Thanks to these partnerships, we are able to offer several of our programs for free or at low cost.

What goals do you have for future growth or initiatives?

Our ultimate goal is to drive ourselves out of existence. We hope to see advanced indigenous nations that are self-sufficient.

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

We will also introduce a full Native CDFI Practitioners certification program. This program is designed to build the operational sustainability and organizational capacity of domestic CDFIs across the country, through tailored guidance on financial management, lending, development services, impact monitoring, marketing, capitalization and more.

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

Hadassah Patterson has been writing for news outlets for over a decade, contributing seven years to local online news and 15 years of commercial copywriting experience. He currently covers politics, business, social justice, culture, food and wellness.

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