By Ellie Winninghoff
Imagine a reservation the size of Connecticut with 30,000 people living on it who have no access to banking services and which is ringed by predatory payday lenders.
That's how Randy Rice, community impact investments portfolio manager at Boston-based Trillium Asset Management, describes the Pine Ridge Reservation to investors. Located 75 southeast of the Black Hills in South Dakota, it is home to the Oglala Lakota, part of the Great Sioux Nation.
"My clients understand the need for the Lakota Funds," Rice says, referring to the community development finance institution, or CDFI, that was started in l987 to support the creation of micro-businesses. "If you had told me 13 years ago that there would be 350 businesses on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I am not sure I would have believed you. One thing that has impressed us as investors is that as they begin to fulfill their mission, they continue to broaden that mission."
Today, besides providing business training and small business loans to members of the tribe, the Lakota Funds offers predatory prevention loans, credit building loans and matched savings accounts for asset building. And it has sponsored the Lakota Federal Credit Union, which will offer banking services on the reservation for the first time. Lakota Funds executive director Tawney Brunsch, who also serves as the credit union's CEO, expects the credit union to open as this article goes to press.
There are two ways to invest in the Pine Ridge Reservation. The first is to invest in the Lakota Funds, where Trillium's clients have invested $400,000. Other top supporters include the Northwest Area Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Tides Foundation, and Walton Family Foundation. Returns, which are negotiated (there is no standard product), average 1.45%, and several foundations have made program related investments at 0% for three to five years.
The second way is to invest in CDs with the Lakota Federal Credit Union. Since it has a low-income designation, it will be able to accept non-member deposits, which are insured by the National Credit Union Association (NCUA).
"This will be very attractive to our clients," Rice says. "It's a no-risk Native investment."
Trial And Error
Pine Ridge, home to Wounded Knee, spans the Great Plains and badlands region. It's an isolated place where half the residents live below the official poverty level. Extended families are often crowded in houses, and many do not have a telephone, running water or electricity. Most residents must drive 100 miles to the closest city once a month to buy processed food, and more than half of the adults have diabetes. The unemployment rate is 80 percent.
A big problem in Indian country is keeping the millions of dollars invested there circulating on the reservation rather than leaking out.
In the l980s, the community concluded that the only way to retain these funds was to have more businesses on the reservation. The Ford Foundation connected the Pine Ridge-based First Nations Financial Project 7th Generation Fund with Muhammad Yunus and other leaders in the then emerging micro-lending world, thus allowing the Lakota to tap their expertise. The Lakota Funds began as a subsidiary of First Nations.
But it didn't work. And it didn't work again and again.
One thing that did not work was circle lending, the foundation of most microfinance in the developing world. Circle lending is based on a group strategy to make sure existing loans are paid off within the group before new loans are made to others in the circle.
The Lakota's problems were twofold: Unlike in Bangladesh, there was a lack of people nearby to sell to. Another issue was kinship. "We're all related," Brunsch says, "It was almost impossible to have a circle without eventually having a brother or sister or parent in the circle, and that made it very awkward."
But the Lakota's earliest stumbling block was the lack of a commercial or debt collection code on the reservation, meaning it could not collect debts under tribal law.