The Rolling Rez: Giving “Mobile Banking” a New Meaning

Every two weeks, on Tribal Pay Days, when the Tribe (the largest employer on the Pine Ridge Reservation) disperses paychecks, a brightly painted bus pulls up. The Rolling Rez is a bank on wheels that travels the fifty miles from Kyle to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and services Tribal employees with their banking needs. People have access to cash, deposit their paychecks, sign loan documents, open accounts – virtually everything a local branch does.

The Rolling Rez bus is a joint initiative started in 2012 by Lakota Federal Credit UnionLakota FundsFirst Peoples Fund, and Artspace that brings banking to people. The Pine Ridge Reservation, a sprawling community 70 miles wide, covering more than 2.8 million acres of land, is home to more than 28,000 people. “We like to say the rez is about twice the size of the state of Delaware,” said Shayna Ferguson, CEO and President of Lakota Federal Credit Union (LFCU). Unlike Delaware, which has 36 banks with over 200 branches scattered throughout the state, Lakota Federal Credit Union is the first and only federally-insured banking institution on the reservation.

Pine Ridge Reservation is also one of the poorest communities in the nation. “More than half the population lives below the poverty line; how can people afford gas to get to a credit union?” said Tawney Brunsch, Executive Director at Lakota Funds. The challenges they saw inspired Brunsch and Ferguson to get creative with their servicing. The Rolling Rez is essential for reaching people in distant areas, especially on paydays. “It’s important to catch people when they have that check in hand, and hopefully it’s deposited or saved or used to repay a loan,” added Brunsch. The strength of the credit union’s membership is a testament to how invaluable accessible banking is. “When we first chartered the credit union, we projected we would have 1000 members in two years. We blew that number out of the water within six months,” shared Ferguson. “Today, we have 3,500 members; it shows how much of a need LFCU is.”

Lakota Federal Credit Union started after the Lakota Funds team saw the need to provide Tribal members with essential banking services, like a checking and savings account. Established in 1986, Lakota Funds is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) offering business loans paired with technical assistance and financial education classes. They are also the first native CDFI dedicated to promoting economic sustainability on the Pine Ridge Reservation. They recognized a credit union would be an asset to Tribal members and agreed to sponsor the credit union in 2009.

“We wanted to give community members access to wealth-building education and access to the products – mortgage loans, checking and savings accounts, consumer loans – that build wealth,” shared Brunsch. Two and a half years after the chartering process began, the doors to the first federally insured depository institution on the reservation were opened.

Like many services, the Rolling Rez was a victim of covid-19 when the generator broke down, and replacement parts couldn’t be sourced for about two months, leaving the bus temporarily out of service. “This made us realize how dependent Pine Ridge is on the mobile banking services,” shared Brunsch. “We ordered a second bus to double up on access and services.” The second bus will amplify LFCU’s efforts. While the first bus is shared with Artspace, the second bus will be wholly owned and operated by LFCU. This will allow them to drive the bus five days a week and expand to the Rosebud Reservation, a neighboring reservation of over 11,000 people who don’t have a bank or credit union yet.

(This story was originally featured in Forbes, through the Partners for Rural Transformation EQ Brand Voice partnership.)