ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Appropriate to National American Indian Heritage Month, NCUA is shining a spotlight on credit union efforts to serve their local underserved Native American communities.
Who knew there was a rain forest in Alaska? Tongass Federal Credit Union, located in Metlakatla in southeastern Alaska, is working to provide financial services in an area where the economy is virtually non-existent. Off the coast is Annette Island, accessed only by plane or ferry, where the only Alaskan Indian reservation is located. There is some seasonal work there but since logging has been shut down in the rain forest, the local economy has struggled.
Tongass FCU CEO Susan Fisher explained that there was once a regional bank there, along with the bed & breakfast and grocery store to serve the 1,400 residents. It was taken over by Wells Fargo, she said, which decided to pull the branch out because the economy was too poor.
So poor, Fisher said, "Nobody knows exactly what the unemployment rate is there but it is widely stated to be 80%." Efforts are being made to ramp up tourism and bingo has been started to try to help boost the local economy.
When the credit union first went in, there was little mutual understanding. Financial counseling was sorely needed for families that have lived on maxed out credit for generations. The credit union had to learn to work with the tribal council and become familiar with what they would allow and not allow. The credit union also had to get creative in how to perfect collateral for loans when the borrower did not own the land his or her home was standing on. Fisher said the credit union has also run into a lot of the same issues typically seen in other underserved populations: many overdrafts and low credit scores.
Tongass received grant money from the National Credit Union Foundation to provide financial counseling training for a dedicated employee who teaches a six-part series course from a book written in conjunction with the tribe. The financial counselor is not a native tribal member but has lived on the reservation for 30 years with his wife who is. Understanding credit and how to improve it is of great interest to participants, according to Fisher.
The credit union also started a program in the elementary school this year for the students to learn about savings. On the first day 27 kids signed up with no account minimum and minimal paperwork. They also "get paid a nice dividend," says Tongass.
Bear Paw Credit Union in Havre, Montana, received three technical assistance grants through NCUA's Community Development Revolving Loan Fund over the last few years totaling about $6,800 for laptop computers and a portable printer employees haul to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation to set up their makeshift branch office on a desk at Fort Belknap College. Part of the funds have also gone to marketing their services on the reservation.
Also critical to serving the reservation's special needs, Bear Paw was awarded a $45,000 grant from the NCUF to place two ATMs there. While the credit union had been able to take deposits and accept loan applications, for safety's sake, cash services had not been offered, according to Vice President of Organizational Development and Administration April Baiamonte; she goes out to the site every other Wednesday while her associate Rhonda Brewer is out there every Wednesday.
The area is remote--a 45 mile roundtrip to Bear Paw's closest branch--and it is not wealthy. "You're not going to find a Bank of America and you're not going to find a Wachovia," Baiamonte stated.
Bringing the credit union's services on-site, "This was our solution to them," she explained. "The Fort Belknap reservation wanted to have their own bank." The tribe looked into establishing their own financial institution but found it was not feasible so state regulators directed them to Bear Paw. Another positive note, Baiamonte said, was that attention has been drawn to the underserved issue in local news outlets.
Looking to the future, Bear Paw has just submitted its application to Treasury's Community Development Financial Institutions Fund for a $600,000 grant to open a true branch with expanded services and hours in Harlem, the commercial hub just three miles off the reservation.
Additionally, Baiamonte said, "We're in the process of working with REAL Solutions. There's a group of us doing this through the league and the Foundation. We are developing a payday lending alternative."
NCUA Chairman JoAnn Johnson stated, "The President's proclamation of November 2007 National American Indian Heritage Month presents an opportunity to underscore the way credit unions are fostering financial stability for American Indian and Alaskan Native communities. I am particularly pleased with the central role that financial literacy programs are playing in American Indian and Native-focused credit unions as they help members move along a path of financial health and well-being."
NCUA also highlighted the following:
Lac Courte Oreilles Federal Credit Union in Hayward, Wisconsin, received CDRLF assistance to help members with basic financial services, home ownership, and credit building. In addition, Lac Courte Oreilles Federal Credit Union has taken a proactive role in financial literacy initiatives by offering classes covering budgeting; working with checking and savings accounts; understanding credit; and other issues facing their local economy.
CR Community First Federal Credit Union of Eagle Butte, South Dakota, was chartered by the NCUA earlier this year to serve 12,000 residents of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in Dewey and Ziebach Counties. The credit union organizers worked with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Council, the Cheyenne River Housing Authority, and NCUA staff to obtain the charter, and the credit union has been received a low-income designation.
Wolf Point Federal Credit Union in Wolf Point, Montana, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Treasury's CDFI fund, provides important financial services to Native Americans in the Wolf Point Community.