U.S. Department of Interior Announces New Partnerships and Offices

Oweesta Corporation and Native CDFI Network are named as new partners
Oweesta is excited to announce a new partnership, alongside Native CDFI Network (NCN), with the U.S. Department of Interior. As part of an MOU, Oweesta and NCN will increase access to financial resources and leverage opportunities for Tribal communities and entrepreneurs. We are grateful and motivated by the numerous initiatives announced by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland; read the full press release below.

PRESS RELEASE from the U.S. Department of Interior:

In opening remarks at the 2022 White House Tribal Nations Summit today, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a series of actions to support Tribally led conservation, education and economic development through a new Office of Strategic Partnerships. The Department also announced a new joint project between the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and Trust for Public Lands to create culturally informed outdoor educational spaces, the renewal of “The National Fund for Excellence in American Indian Education,” and new partnerships with community organizations to catalyze economic opportunities across Indian Country.

“At the Department of the Interior we have a solemn duty to honor and strengthen the federal government’s nation-to-nation relationships with Tribes. Today’s announcements reaffirms that commitment and will bring increased and much needed resources to Indigenous communities,” said Secretary Haaland.

The new Office of Strategic Partnerships will assist with building partnerships, leveraging resources, and promoting innovative solutions for Indian Country. It will work to bring awareness of the needs and unique status of Tribal communities as federal-philanthropic initiatives and programs are developed. Housed within the Office of the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs and with support from a partnership with Native Americans in Philanthropy, the office will work in close coordination with the White House Council on Native American Affairs and other federal partners to help Tribes and Tribal organizations develop and build long-term sustainable bonds with philanthropy, non-profit organizations and the business community to further conservation, education and economic development initiatives in Indian Country.

Through the office, the Department will help manage a diverse set of collaborative efforts with philanthropic and non-profit organizations, including a new partnership between BIE and the Trust for Public Land’s Community Schoolyards Project to create culturally informed outdoor educational spaces. Working closely with Tribal communities, the Trust for Public Land has helped design multi-purposed outdoor spaces that infuse physical activity, education, Native languages and cultural heritage. In 2023, this innovative partnership will help fund nine new schoolyards in Tribal communities:

  • Coeur d’Alene Tribal School, De Smet, ID
  • Crazy Horse School, Wanblee, SD
  • John F. Kennedy Day School, White River, AZ
  • Menominee Tribal School, Neopit, WI
  • Northern Cheyenne Tribal School, Busby, MT
  • Pine Ridge School, Pine Ridge, SD
  • Rock Creek Grant School, Bullhead, SD
  • Santa Fe Indian School, Santa Fe , NM
  • Wingate Elementary School, Ft. Wingate, NM

In support of these new strategic initiatives, Secretary Haaland is renewing “The National Fund for Excellence in American Indian Education.” Founded in 1999, the congressionally chartered—but long unused—nonprofit organization has a mission to promote educational opportunities for American Indian students attending BIE schools. Through the National Fund, the Department will support Tribally-led educational initiatives, including its work on Native language revitalization.

The Department also announced the signing of new MOUs between the Office of the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs and the American Sustainable Business Network (ASBN) to support Tribally-led community based economic development entrepreneurship; with Enterprise Community Partners to support affordable housing and homeownership within Tribal communities; and with the Native CDFI Network and Oweesta Corporation to increase access to financial resources and leverage opportunities for Tribal communities and entrepreneurs.

The White House Tribal Nations Summit provides an opportunity for Administration and Tribal leaders from the 574 federally recognized Tribes to discuss ways the federal government can invest in and strengthen nation-to-nation relationships as well as ensure that progress in Indian Country endures for years to come. A livestream of each day’s events can be viewed at the Interior Department’s YouTube page.

Making Forever Homes Possible in Lac du Flambeau

Patti Maulson was ready to rebuild her life after going through a divorce that left her bankrupt. A tribal member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribe, she decided to return home to the reservation and become a homeowner once more.

A new home for a low-income Native American household in Wisconsin, funded through a home loan from WINLF. Photo Courtesy of Wisconsin Native Loan Fund

With the bankruptcy fresh on her credit report, she couldn’t qualify for a loan through most banks. That’s when she reached out to Wisconsin Native Loan Fund (WINLF), a local Native CDFI servicing all eleven Tribes in Wisconsin. In a letter, Patti laid out the circumstances that led her to declare bankruptcy and the reparative steps she had been taking since then to rebuild.

Wisconsin Native Loan Fund, like many Native CDFIs, are usually the only non-predatory lender available to Native communities. And like many Native CDFIs, their mission as a lender is to uplift Native communities through fair lending and personalized financial education.

“We’re a hand up, not a handout,” said Janice St. Germaine, Director of Lending at Wisconsin Native Loan Fund (WINLF). “Not many people own their own homes. It’s not taught to own land on or off the reservation.”

Homeownership continues to be an area of great disparity, as Native communities face housing shortages, challenges in accessing mortgage capital, and other barriers to safe, affordable housing, enough that only 53% of Native Americans are homeowners compared to 71% of white households. Even worse is that usually the easiest and fastest way to acquire a loan is through payday lenders which trap people in predatory interest rates. Seeing a demand for housing and fair lending, WINLF opened their doors in 2008 and quickly expanded their operations to service all eleven Tribes in Wisconsin. They now offer a full range of lending services from auto loans to debt consolidation loans.

Mortgage credit utilization is low on
reservations — per capita mortgage
utilization in reservation communities is only
59% of the utilization rate in nearby offreservation geographies.
Source: Access to Capital and Credit in Native Communities:
A Data Review, Native Nations Institute

WINLF continues to strive for the development of Tribal Nations in Wisconsin, partnering with constructions companies to address the housing shortage. A lot of the work they do is also related to empowering communities to thrive within the mainstream financial realm. “Indian people are taught survival. We’re not taught to care about finances or credit scores. At WINLF, we’re trying to help people be comfortable with financial matters and make it so they can go to the bank or some other financial institution,” said Janice St. Germaine. “We want to be a steppingstone for people, so they can graduate into going to a bank.”

Patti has continued her relationship with WINLF. She returned for an auto loan for a much-needed new truck. She is also making renovations to her home with the help of WINLF. “I am so grateful to WINLF as an institution that is available to us as Native people who are working hard to build lives for themselves and our families. I am back home and finally living the life I have dreamed of for so long,” shared Patti Maulson.

(This story was originally featured in Oweesta’s 2021 Annual Report.)

Decolonizing Food Systems In Maine

“We sealed the eel deal,” Tawny Wilson, Loan Officer at NDN Fund shared a joke popular within the NDN team. After three years of working closely with the Indian Township Enterprise (ITE), the economic development arm of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, NDN Fund and ITE closed out a $1.5M loan to support a joint venture in the eel aquaculture business.

Elvers (baby eels) from the eel aquaculture venture by the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Indian Township and their partner,
American Unagi, in Maine. Photo Courtesy of NDN Collective

Eels have been a traditional food source of the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine for centuries and more than half of community members harvest baby eels, called elvers, each spring. However, the community has faced financial exploitation over their harvests – harvesters would regularly be paid half of the market value for their catch, only to see the price double.

They also faced challenges in integrating themselves in the greater eel value chain despite centuries of expertise. Most eels are largely caught as elvers and mature in aquaponic centers. Due to the heavy regulations on commercial eels in the US, domestic elvers are shipped to Asia to grow and then sent back to the US.

The Indian Township Enterprise saw an opportunity to buy equity into American Unagi, a Waldoboro, Maine-based company and the only eel distribution aquaponic center in the US. As equity stakeholders, the Tribe could take back control of their ancestral food system. They could create a market for their annual eel harvest of 700 pounds, create new jobs in their rural community, and price their harvest fairly, stabilizing fishery values to over $4 million per year for Maine Tribes.

Despite the promising joint venture, ITE found it difficult to acquire the capital needed to buy into American Unagi until they met NDN Fund, an emerging Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and the impact investing and lending arm of the NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led nonprofit organization.

“The power of NDN Collective is helping to change things. It’s more than helping to create a business plan or deploying capital – that’s easy. Our work is about managing relationships,” said Tawny Wilson.

Native communities and causes are
disproportionally underrepresented in
philanthrophy, having only received an
average of 0.4% of total funding from large
U.S. foundations between 2002-2016.
Source: Investing in Native Communities: Philanthropic
Funding for Native American Communities and Causes,
Native Americans in Philanthropy and Candid

NDN Collective’s mission to defend, develop, and decolonize permeates throughout all their work, including the decolonization of lending. Most traditional lenders evaluate borrowers’ creditworthiness against the five C’s of credit – character, capacity, capital, collateral, and conditions. CDFIs usually add a sixth C for community. Many Tribal communities and aspiring Native entrepreneurs are unable to fit into the mainstream mold of an ideal borrower, and subsequently do not qualify for initial seed funding.

Instead, NDN Fund measures borrowers through the lens of regeneration and self-determination by evaluating the six R’s of resilient financing – relationship, reciprocity, reach, resources, reputation, and the Resilience Impact Assessment (RIA) intake form.

The seed funding the Passamaquoddy Tribe received from NDN Fund proved to be invaluable. Beyond buying their initial equity stake in American Unagi, the Indian Township Enterprise is SBA 88 certified, pursuing federal contracts, and entered their next phase of funding to develop, build, and operate Maine’s 2nd eel aquaculture business: Wabanaki Unagi.

(This story was originally featured in Oweesta’s 2021 Annual Report.)

Heinz Family Foundation Announces $1.5 Million in Awards

Today, the Heinz Family Foundation recognized Oweesta’s CEO and President Chrystel Cornelius as the recipient of the 27th Heinz Award for the Economy. Established in 1993 in honor of the late U.S. Senator John Heinz, the Heinz Awards recognize individuals for their contributions in the areas of the Arts, the Economy, and the Environment.

Chrystel Cornelius was selected for the prestigious award for her work to return wealth and financial independence to Native lands and people, addressing centuries of disenfranchisement that have led to profound socioeconomic disparities for Native communities. “We innately know that when armed with the appropriate resources, Native peoples hold the capacity and ingenuity to ensure the sustainable, economic, spiritual and cultural well-being of their communities. Oweesta has been honored to walk hand in hand for over two decades with our Native communities to realize and redefine equity, together,” shared Ms. Cornelius.

A detailed profile of Chrystel Cornelius can be found here.

About the Heinz Awards

Established by Teresa Heinz in 1993 to honor the memory of her late husband, U.S. Senator John Heinz, the Heinz Awards celebrates the accomplishments and spirit of the Senator by recognizing the extraordinary achievements of individuals in the areas of great importance to him. The Awards, administered by the Heinz Family Foundation, recognizes individuals for their contributions in the areas of the Arts, the Economy and the Environment. Nominations are submitted by invited experts, who serve anonymously, and are reviewed by jurors appointed by the Heinz Family Foundation. The jurors make recommendations to the Board of Directors, which subsequently selects the Award recipients, two in each of the three awards categories. For more information on the Heinz Awards, visit www.heinzawards.org.

2022 Native American Financial Education Practitioners Summit

6th Annual Native CDFI Capital Access Convening Recap

This year’s Native CDFI Capital Access Convening brought together hundreds of practitioners, funders and investors, allies, and individuals new to the industry to learn, grow, and celebrate Native CDFIs and the role they play in their communities’ growth and resiliency.

One question that naturally emerged and carried throughout the event is whether we are experiencing a moment or a movement? During the panel “Something Else”: Inequity in Capital Access, as the speakers explored the persistent invisibility of Native communities in philanthropy, policies, and data, they wondered – and worried – whether the advances we have made were of a moment or enduring. Michael Roberts, CEO of First Nations Development Institute went on to add, “If we are in a moment, it’s a moment of unity with BIPOC groups to change the larger narrative.” His words, and the many conversations at the Convening, remind us that we can turn this moment into a movement through community, collaboration, and organization.

We thank you for joining our 6th Annual Native CDFI Capital Access Convening. It is because of partners and practitioners like you that we can build ladders of upward mobility for our Native communities across the United States.

Visit the 2021 CAC event page to access presentations and sessions recordings. We’ve listed some highlights below:

A special thanks to our sponsors Wells Fargo, Northwest Area Foundation, NeighborWorks America, Clearinghouse CDFI, Highlands SRI, and in-kind sponsor Vidmob. It is through your generous support and steadfast commitment to economic development that made our Convening possible.

2021 Native Financial Education Practitioners Summit

We are joining forces to end persistent poverty

New Partnership Aims to End Persistent Poverty and Reimagine the Future of Rural America
Oweesta is thrilled to announce the launch of Partners for Rural Transformation —
a partnership to eliminate persistent poverty, and advance prosperity and economic justice in Rural America.

Today marks an important milestone for this work, which started in 2014 when a group of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) located in regions beset by persistent poverty banded together to address the longstanding problem of underinvestment in the places we call home. Driven by a vision of a future where persistent poverty no longer exists in the U.S., the CDFIs came together to advance and grow that shared vision — and to create the Persistent Poverty Working Group, now known as Partners for Rural Transformation (the Partners). Partners for Rural Transformation strengthens local economies — generating local wealth that sticks — and builds power among people living in some of the most disinvested parts of the country, including the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, Native American Communities, the Deep South, the Rio Grande Valley and farming regions in the Rural West.Tapping our collective power and shared experience, we’re working toward a reimagined future for rural America with the people who call it home. As CDFIs, we provide the capital and tools people need to build credit, get low-interest loans, find higher-wage jobs, buy their first homes, and build and maintain water systems so people who live in rural communities can build wealth, provide for their families and have hope for the future.We are using our collective voice to increase public, private and philanthropic investment in rural communities to build a country where persistent poverty no longer exists. Oweesta is honored to partner with companionable CDFIs who also address the most vulnerable communities in the nation and have a dedicated mission to build platforms for upward mobility and contributing to safe, healthy and equitable communities.

To learn more about our work, please visit Partners for Rural Transformation’s new website at www.ruraltransformation.org.

In solidarity,

Chrystel Cornelius
Executive Director
Oweesta Corporation

Support for this partnership is provided in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

2017 VITA Materials

Portfolio Snapshot

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