National Credit Union Foundation Convenes Leaders Across America to Reach Underserved Native American Population

Credit Unions Identify Best Practices to Serve Native Americans

In a nationwide effort to help credit unions reach some of the most impoverished people in the U.S., the National Credit Union Foundation (NCUF) organized a summit to identify best practices to serve Native Americans. As a result, credit unions will soon have access to a white paper, online resources, and webinars outlining findings and model programs for credit unions able to serve Native Americans.

Establishing Needs

“The lack of credit union-specific information to serve Native Americans, combined with the need for financial literacy among the general population, led us to organize this convening,” explained Ruth Jaure, NCUF’s Director of Program Development. “Credit unions are the natural financial institutions to serve Native Americans. As people-oriented service organizations, credit unions have developed expertise in asset-building, small business lending, financial education, and homebuyer counseling for low-income populations.”

According to the latest Census, 2 million Native Americans live in the U.S. -- and they continue to be among the most impoverished people. Many reservations and remote native villages suffer with depressed economies and tribal members living in cycles of poverty. Few Native American communities can attract or sustain depository institutions. Native Americans living in urban areas are also among the most underserved by insured financial institutions. They often fall prey to predatory lenders like other impoverished urban residents.

Identifying Leaders

Bill Myers, CEO of Alternatives Federal Credit Union in Ithaca, N.Y., came to the Foundation early this year with a dilemma. In order to reach out to a nearby tribe, Myers was seeking model programs for Native Americans -- but he came up empty-handed. So Jaure put together an advisory committee of experts on Native American issues, including Oklahoma Credit Union League President Lisa Finley, who agreed to co-host and facilitate a summit with the Foundation.

NCUF first conducted a national survey of credit unions with Native Americans in their field of membership, then invited representatives from 15 leading credit unions. All met at Weokie Credit Union in Oklahoma City on July 10-11. Attendees came from Alaska, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. All described difficulties in finding resources to better serve Native American members.

“There didn’t seem to be much of a consciousness surrounding the issue until now,” Myers related. “It’s groundbreaking to put this many credit union staff that serve Native Americans in the same room together.”

Finley was drawn to the project for the same reason as Myers, albeit on a much larger scale. “Oklahoma has the largest Native American population in the country, with 39 federally recognized tribes. Credit unions in the state are always looking for ways to better serve this population.” Finley also has extensive knowledge on dealing with Native Americans, having worked for a tribal government for many years.

Lessons Learned

Opening speaker Kristi Coker, executive director of the Citizens Potawatomi Loan Fund, discussed her experiences in funding financial services for Potawatomi tribes and emphasized the need to develop partnerships with each local tribe.

Jaure revealed summary findings from NCUF’s national survey of credit unions serving Native Americans:
  • Most institutions offer the same products to both Native Americans and non-Native Americans.
  • Credit unions want to provide Natives Americans with financial education, home mortgage loans, and alternatives to payday loans.
  • The biggest obstacle to serving Native Americans is working within the tribal court system, which often results in difficulties securing collateral.
Model Programs

Attendees discussed their experiences dealing with Native American members and shared successful model programs. Among their advice:
  • Serving Native Americans opens the door to building membership loyalty, increasing branch locations, and diversifying board representation.
  • Acknowledge and respect cultural differences of each tribe; learn how to work within each tribal structure.
  • Identify resources that credit unions should use, such as tribal governments, grant funding, other credit union partners, and the Native Financial Education Coalition.
  • Provide services such as mortgages, payday lending alternatives, business loans, credit rebuilding, tax preparation, and Individual Development Accounts (IDAs).
  • Determine model programs that credit unions currently deliver, such as innovative approaches to construction financing, payday lending, financial education programs, and volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) sites.
Top Priorities

The group prioritized the most important issues in serving Native Americans:
  1. Find resources to help serve tribal populations.
  2. Develop a national network of credit unions; ask larger credit unions to provide financial and other resources to smaller credit unions serving Native Americans.
  3. Work with tribal governments and understand tribal law.
Next Steps

The advisory committee and attendees agreed on next steps:
  1. Produce a white paper to summarize the findings from this convening.
  2. Put together a resource page on the NCUF website ( to assist credit unions interested in serving Native Americans.
  3. Meet periodically via webinars dealing with priority issues.
Success Story

“Dealing with this population may take time but the rewards are great,” concluded attendee Al Vukasin, president of Bear Paw Credit Union in Havre, Mont. “You have to start small, and keep building everything little by little. One thing leads to another.”

With a grant from NCUF, Vukasin’s credit union opened two ATMs on Fort Belknap, a Native American reservation, late last year. Already the credit union estimates saving tribal members about $15,000 in fees.

The credit union also started bringing a mobile branch with basic financial services to the reservation in June 2004, for two-and-a-half hours once a week. The results were amazing: From January to May of 2006, for an accumulated total of about six-and-a-half-days, the credit union received over $325,000 in deposits from Native Americans who never before had insured accounts.

But for credit union employees, the greatest gratification was not monetary. Every time they arrived on the reservation, tribal members were thanking them for coming. “One tribal member said ‘thanks for coming to my home,’” related Vukasin. “This is a population that by and large needs and wants our help.”