Q&A: Empowering U.S. Finance Literacy for Indigenous Communities

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

(Photo by Josh Appel)

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Indigenous communities face multi-level hurdles to thriving in U.S. financial systems. First, communities are governed by both the U.S. and their tribal affiliations, which creates unique structures for each group. But laws harken back to a toxic mixture of treaties and broken promises, leaving many without the foundation for financial stability. Adding to this are a hodge-podge of modern-day legislative gaps, policy bias and lack of access to financial services.

Operating since 1999, Colorado-based Oweesta Corporation is one of the longest-standing Native CDFI intermediaries in the U.S., offering financial products and development services exclusively to Native CDFIs and Native communities. Within Native communities, 86% lack a single financial institution. Remote communities lack broadband internet services.

Communities that do have access are often faced with racially insensitive financial, systemic or service policies, despite legislative efforts to correct these practices. We recently spoke with Chrystel Cornelius, the 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 Native communities?

Financial education is an integral piece in the systemic oppression around access to capital for Native communities.

Native individuals are also the least likely of any minority group to have emergency funds or a banking/checking account of any other minority population in the nation. So Native families wouldn’t 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, Native Communities are disproportionately challenged in creating generational wealth and passing down financial management knowledge to future generations.

Financial education is important for our Native communities because we are building 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 our Building Native Communities suite of financial education curricula, Native families take traditional skills and modern financial language to navigate the western economic systems.

Unfortunately, financial education is not the overall solution to the barriers of financial inequality for Native communities; it is a stepping stone on the long path of creating equity in the United States’ economic system.

What do you do in that regard?

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

How does this help?

Asset-building tools stimulate reservation economies by providing tribal members the opportunity to acquire financial skills and build assets through small business creation, homeownership, education and more.

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

As a majority of Native communities have traditionally operated within a “cash economy,” the delivery of these skills is essential in the advancement of asset-building opportunities. With the provision of financial education programs and services, many tribal members have a first-time opportunity to learn budgeting and the importance of credit, receive a copy of their credit report, and discover avenues through which to generate community wealth, as well as tools to determine loan interest amounts on credit.

Chrystel Cornelius (Photo courtesy of the Oweesta Corporation)

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

The history of settlement in the United States has meant that Indigenous communities were largely forcibly relocated onto geographically isolated reservations. Native economies are — due to these historical issues — heavily reliant on the arts, recreation and accommodation industries (especially gaming).

In many Native communities, over 30% of the tribal citizens are employed in the service industry, which has been so disastrously affected by COVID-19; this is compared to just 18% of the total US population.

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

In 23 years of tracking impact, Oweesta found over $50 million has revolved in Native communities through Native CDFIs, leading to 12,453 jobs created or retained, and 2,654 small businesses financed 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 Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families (BNC) curriculum, now in its 5th edition. Responding to a need for a culturally relevant financial education curriculum in Indian Country, Oweesta created a student workbook, a teacher development program and an instructor guide to help teach financial education in an accessible, effective and culturally responsive way.

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

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

Collaboration is an integral part of supporting and expanding the 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 trusting partnerships with financial and philanthropic institutions that understand our guiding principles of arming Native people with the tools and resources to thrive on their own terms. It is thanks to these partnerships that we are able to offer several of our programming for free or at low cost.

What goals do you have for future growth or initiatives?

Our ultimate goal is to work ourselves out of existence. We hope to see thriving Native Nations that are self-sufficient.

In the near future, we are broadening our range of financial education programming. We’re launching an advanced curriculum for Building Native Communities: Financial Coaching for Families to assist Native financial practitioners in further developing their coaching skills in 2023.

We’ll also roll out the full Native CDFI Practitioners Certification program. This program is designed to build the operational sustainability and organizational capacity of Native CDFIs across the country, through tailored instruction on financial management, lending, development services, impact tracking, marketing, capitalization and more.

In addition to content adapted to Native communities, we’ll create a learning cohort where practitioners can freely share the challenges of their unique operating environment. We deem this space for connection, learning and sharing as critical for our practitioners.

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

Tags: cdfi futureseducationindigenous people

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