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Leon Kaye headshot

Unlocking Financial Literacy Resources for Indigenous Americans

By Leon Kaye
Financial Literacy

The concepts of financial literacy sound intuitive enough if you’ve been immersed in them since childhood: the importance of budgeting, the power of saving, the power of letting your money work for you through compounding, the importance of saving for that first home, and tucking away a rainy day fund to cover those sudden emergencies that can cost $500 and up.

But about half of Americans can’t afford a $1,000 emergency for a bevy of reasons, with stubborn poverty being amongst them. Growing up in a paycheck-to-paycheck existence, or finding oneself in that situation upon adulthood, often means scrambling day after day just to get by. In many communities denied the opportunities offered by the transfer of intergenerational wealth, the long-term outlook for families is often dire, made even more complicated by the fact that they often struggle with the basic fundamentals of financial literacy.

Such is the reality for many Indigenous Americans, as research over the years has demonstrated that this community has confronted a long struggle with financial literacy. To that end, one community development financial institution (CDFI) based in northern Colorado has taken the lead in developing the financial tools needed to ensure that Native populations can not only survive but build wealth now and far into the future.

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Oweesta Corporation bills itself as much more than a community bank. The CDFI, which has been operating for more than 20 years, also provides financial education, matched savings programs and public policy advocacy for Native communities across the U.S.

Through an ongoing cobranded series with Forbes, Oweesta has showcased how its community-based approach is doing its part to help build wealth for Indigenous families. To date, by working with groups such as Partners for Rural Transformation, Oweesta has certified more than 2,000 trainers in various principles of personal finance; they in turn have held trainings for more than 40,000 people. The results are paying off, with a boost in average savings, a reduction in debt and an increase in credit scores. New financial literacy skills also help families escape the cycle of poverty often exacerbated by the likes of check-cashing services and other companies that end up punishing the working poor with high fees and interest rates.

“Further inequality in access to financial support has rendered individuals in persistent poverty counties unable to weather economic shocks and access opportunities to accumulate both short- and long-term wealth reserves,” wrote Essence Smith, a project manager for Partners for Rural Transformation, and Stephanie Cote, a senior programs officer with Oweesta, who together described many of their clients’ previous experiences with the darker players within the U.S. financial sector. “Members primarily operate outside the financial mainstream in the second tier of financial services: a market saturated by predatory, aggressively-advertised, high-cost credit products."

Oweesta’s track record over the years has helped it secure partnerships and funding from financial institutions including Wells Fargo and Bank of America.

The work of Oweesta and its partners is contributing to another outcome: Making the U.S. Indigenous population more visible. In a recent  Nonprofit Quarterly  article, the CDFI’s CEO and COO, Chrystel Cornelius and Krystal Langholz, noted how this community has long been overlooked. One such example is CNN’s categorizing of Native communities as “Something Else” during its 2020 election reporting; even worse, there’s also the tragedy of thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women whose fates have been unreported or not investigated. “Our lives, economies and land are afterthoughts — if we’re lucky — to mainstream U.S. society and philanthropy,” Cornelius and Langholz wrote.

Image credits: Oweesta Corporation via Facebook; Paul Marshall via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye