Celebrating Economic Opportunity and Asset Building in Native Communities

In this Native American Heritage month, we’re inspired by the exciting work taking place in Native communities that have historically struggled with poverty, high unemployment and limited economic opportunity. 

Today, increased investment in and by Native Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) is reversing this trend, leading to sustainable, long-term economic and cultural wealth in a way that continues to honor traditional values and cultural norms. Native CDFIs are providing capital, credit, education and training to help Native entrepreneurs and Native-led businesses thrive, creating economic development and market opportunities, jobs and an expanded tax base. 

Prosperity Now Board member Sherry Salway Black of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota sums it up, “Native CDFIs offer many different opportunities for Native asset building, including business technical assistance and lending, housing education and financing, matched savings accounts and financial education to name a few. They are, and have been, a beacon for Native peoples seeking economic opportunity in Native communities over the past two decades and will continue to grow and evolve as a source of hope--and capital investment--for years to come.”

First Peoples Fund, for example, has made $4 million in grants to Native artists and culture bearers since 1999. Art holds significant cultural meaning in Indian country, and increasingly, is being recognized as a lever for economic development. First Peoples Fund has been providing artists and entrepreneurs with capital, markets, networks, knowledge, supplies and other resources they need to create and sell their work. This Native-led arts industry is creating new jobs, providing living wages and fostering economic development on and near reservations.

By supporting social entrepreneurship in such a holistic manner, First Peoples Fund can address other challenges, such as improving education, access to health care and reducing poverty. President Lori Pourier explains, "First Peoples Fund has worked alongside Native CDFIs for the past 23 years. Too often, culture bearers and artist entrepreneurs are unrecognized for their role in restoring tribal economies, yet they remain central. As First Peoples Fund works collaboratively with Native CDFIs to better serve artists' entrepreneurial needs by providing access to credit and capital, new markets and stronger business skills, artists' incomes increase, benefiting their families and communities."

The PBS News Hour recently highlighted the impact of First Peoples Fund’s investment in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, where a substantial number of Native households earn income by creating and selling art. Creative investment in social enterprise on Pine Ridge address the many challenges entrepreneurs face, such as a lack of access to financing or transportation, enabling them to market and grow their businesses. (You can learn more about the impact that Native CDFIs have had on Native communities here and here.)

This impact has been made possible in part by thoughtful, intentional public and private investments. For example, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s CDFI Fund includes significant support for Native communities. Allies in the philanthropic sector, such as the Northwest Area Foundation, are seeing the value of investing in Indian country to grow jobs, support small businesses and create self-sufficiency for multiple generations. And nonprofit organizations, including First Nations Oweesta Corporation, Native CDFI Network and First Peoples Fund, are essential partners in building the skills and technical capacity of Native CDFIs and other community-based groups.

But there remains important work to do. While Native CDFIs are engines of change, they cannot act alone. There is a continued need for investment in Native communities. Banks, credit unions, other financial institutions and individual investors interested in meaningful community investments should consider partnering with Native CDFIs as a safe, secure way to respond to needs in economically underserved communities, resulting in an Indian country that is even stronger and more vibrant.

As Krystal Langholz, the COO of Oweesta puts it: “Native communities continue to creatively and resourcefully overcome the structural barriers that create capital constraints. Continued investment in Native CDFIs and organizations remain critical for fostering healthy, sovereign economies.”

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