Blaming lack of credit for the poverty of many Native Americans, President Clinton on Thursday urged financial firms to aggressively pursue lending on tribal lands.
"Very few grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, and banks are doing business on reservations," he said at a White House conference on improving living standards in Indian communities. "As a result, money that could be used to build tribal economies and creating jobs is spent too often off the reservations."
Also, to make it easier for Native Americans to build homes on their ancestral lands, the President on Tuesday directed the Treasury Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create a "one-stop" mortgage lending program for reservations. A one-year pilot soon will be launched for the Navaho nation.
"Tribal and federal governments, along with the private sector, all have to work together to empower our people with the tools to succeed," he said.
With government assistance, private lenders can quickly increase the amount of credit available to Native Americans, the President said. Specifically, he urged banks to invest in Community Development Financial Institutions, which receive government funds to match money committed by the private sector. The institutions provide "micro-loans" to individuals and organizations to launch small businesses.
"Micro-credit has tremendous potential," he said.
To determine how Indian communities can become more attractive for business investment, President Clinton also ordered the Department of Commerce to study the information technology needs of reservations and to issue a report within nine months.
Acting Comptroller of the Currency Julie L. Williams, who spoke earlier in the day, said Indian communities can be lucrative sources of new business for depository institutions.
"Bankers who once wondered whether there was money to be made in the Native American market are having many of their doubts dispelled," she said. " Some of the most profitable branches of large nationwide banking companies today are located on Indian reservations."
The most successful banks have tailored their services to comply with individual tribal laws and adapt to reservation geography, she said. For instance, some banks operating on reservations that span thousands of acres operate mobile offices to deliver services.
All Indian communities do not need identical services, she added. Some may seek only basic deposit and checking services for low-income members. Others may want to increase the availability of residential mortgages or obtain financing for small businesses, a hospital, or industrial development.
She also urged tribes to also consider establishing their own banks.
"The formation of a national bank is not the answer for every Native American tribe," she said. "But as some have already discovered, the national bank charter can be a potent instrument for economic progress. The Comptroller's Office on Wednesday issued guidelines on forming a tribal- owned bank.
Bruce M. Morrison, chairman of the Federal Housing Finance Board, urged tribe -owned banks to join the Federal Home Loan Bank System, which will allow them to use advances as start-up funds.
The Home Loan banks can also invest in Small Business Investment Companies owned by Native American communities.
"All Indian-owned institutions need to be part of" the Home Loan system, he said.