Native-American Group Seeks Funds To Assist In Starting Up Credit Unions

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The National American Indian Housing Council has applied to the Ford Foundation for a grant to pay for technical assistance for Native groups that want to start credit unions.

NAIHC and two other groups used a previous grant from the Ford Foundation to organize three informational conferences on American Indians and credit unions in the last year.

If it is funded, NAIHC will team with the National Federation of Community Development CUs on the technical assistance grant.

Jane DeMarines, communications director of NAIHC, heads up the group's effort by virtue of her previous experience at National Cooperative Bank. She feels that credit unions, "because they represent the little guy," may be a good alternative for delivering financial services on reservations not large enough to attract their own commercial banks.

"We would like to see tribal organizations sponsor credit unions, particularly in those reservation areas where there just isn't access to financial institutions," she said.

Although there is no consensus on exactly how many credit unions currently are operating in Indian Country, there is general agreement that it is about 10. That's less than a tenth of 1% of the 10,000 credit unions in the country.

NAIHC, with a grant from Ford and the help of the National Credit Union Foundation and the Enterprise Foundation, held its first Native credit union seminar at Clackamas, Ore., in September 2002, in conjunction with a meeting of the Northwest Indian Housing Association. About 25 people attended, said DeMarines.

Turning People Away

Its second was in Oklahoma, in conjunction with a meeting of the Southern Plains Indian Housing Association, with a similar number of attendees. Its third meeting, in March of this year in Washington, was its "most comprehensive one," according to DeMarines, with about 60 attendees. "We had to turn people away."

NAIHC executive director Gary Gordon said at the Washington meeting "credit unions are a mechanism that tribes can use to teach their members the importance of developing credit histories good credit histories, as well as to budget and save for a downpayment and closing costs. It's hard to do that through an ATM machine, sometimes the only source of banking within a reasonable drive for many tribes."

Speakers at the meetings have included Bob Shipe, president and chief executive of First American Credit Union, Window Rock, Ariz.; Stephen Scott, manager of Lac Courte Oreilles Federal Credit Union, Wisconsin and Tony Brown, director of the federal Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which includes credit unions in its annual funding awards.

DeMarines pointed out that First American, originally chartered by a group that was majority Navajo, has expanded to serve several other tribes in its area. It is believed to be the longest-established CU in Indian Country.

Other Native-affiliated credit unions include White Earth Reservation Federal Credit Union, Minnesota; South Metro Federal Credit Union, Minnesota (Shakopee, Mdewakanton, Sioux); Sisseton-Wahpeton Federal Credit Union, South Dakota; and Ft. Randall Federal Credit Union, South Dakota.

About five groups at those meetings have expressed interest in developing a credit union, she said, although she has no idea how many will actually take it further. But they have included groups from the Umatilla reservation in Oregon, the Spokane reservations in Washington, and the Akwesasne Housing Authority in New York state.

The next step NAIHC wants to take is more intensive training and technical assistance for tribal groups to actually charter credit unions. If the Ford Foundation grants them money for this purpose, they will team with Cliff Rosenthal, executive director of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions.

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