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The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

Building Assets & Wealth among Native Americans: Part One, Opportunities in Indian Country

Published:  November 14, 2012
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This blog post is part one in a two-part series on building assets and wealth among Native Americans as a means to advance financial stability in low-income communities around the country.  The blogs describe how and why the Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF) supports nonprofits in their efforts to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable prosperity in eight states across the upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. The blogs are authored by Kevin Walker, CEO and President.

When the mainstream media pay attention to Native American communities at all, they most often tell stories of trauma and tragedy. There is truth in many of those stories, of course, but we at Northwest Area Foundation see a different reality that also is true. When we meet with people on reservations and in urban Indian communities, we see energy and vision. We encounter a passion for self-determination in a rising generation of young leaders. And we see innovative Native organizations building assets for the future. We support Native-led asset and wealth building programs that have potential to nurture thriving economies in Indian Country. Job-building programs and wealth-creation models anchored in Native culture have track records of success that should be more widely known and studied. These approaches could help other Native and non-Native communities in their pursuits of lasting prosperity.

The most effective programs are anchored in cultural perspective. The Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland, Ore., applies a Relational World View Model to its prosperity-building programs. This concept focuses on balance and a holistic thought process in relation to life elements of mind, body, spirit and social needs.

“Asset and wealth building is a western concept,” said Matthew Morton, executive director of NAYA, a Foundation grantee. “A lot of these programs have been in the Portland area for quite a while. We’ve had more success when we create strategies geared specifically for the urban Native community.”

Native-led asset building organizations are working to bridge the cultural gap. Access to capital is the key to building new businesses, funding community projects, and building personal wealth. Yet most non-Native banks find it too risky to lend on reservations. Northwest Area Foundation has made grants to support Native American community development financial institutions (CDFIs), which provide long-term investments needed to lift incomes, build wealth, and overcome a historic lack of Native personal assets. These CDFIs provide a wide range of loan services, financial training, and business assistance.

“We’ve had great nonprofit and tribal asset building programs in place for many years, but they haven’t been able to increase prosperity like CDFIs,” said Tanya Fiddler, executive director of Four Bands Community Fund, a CDFI on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. “Native CDFIs attract small investments that they leverage in a big way through partnerships, innovative programming and a strong advocacy voice to make the most fundamental impact of all – developing Native human capital.” The Native CDFI movement has taken off in recent years, and there are now more than 72 such organizations dedicated to strengthening Native communities.

Advancing the strength and organizational effectiveness of Native CDFIs is a primary strategy of the Foundation’s Native American Social Entrepreneurship Initiative. This two-year learning cohort seeks to accelerate the role of CDFIs in providing services that spawn new businesses and new partnerships across many sectors. The goal is to foster entrepreneurial skills that build a local economy and can be applied to a variety of social challenges as well.

Another successful asset building model is the Reservation Partnership Fund. Established by the Cheyenne River Tribal Ventures, a Foundation grantee, the Reservation Partnership Fund offers matching funds of up to $50,000 for new and expanding enterprises. Similar to tax increment financing, this Fund has provided 15 grants since 2009 to expand Native-owned businesses such as retail establishments, hotels, construction companies, and a farmers’ co-op.

“The Reservation Partnership Fund made it possible for one business to buy a larger piece of equipment, bid on a larger project, hire more employees, and increase sales due to the upgrades of equipment,” according to Eileen Briggs, executive director of Cheyenne River Tribal Ventures.

Culturally based asset building programs are opening new opportunities for Native Americans to move from low income to financial stability. We at the Northwest Area Foundation are honored to support nonprofits working to create thriving Native economies. We welcome funding partners who, like us, want to develop this potential for creating real and lasting change.  If you are interested in joining us in opening opportunities for Native Americans, please contact Martin Jennings, Northwest Area Foundation program officer at mjennings@nwaf.org or 651-225-7716.

For more information on the Northwest Area Foundation and its work with Native American communities, please visit www.nwaf.org.

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