SVC Panel Explores Challenges And Opportunities Facing Native American Communities
Any discussion of social justice in America by all rights should include a discussion of Native American land rights. The Social Venture Circle annual conference in Berkeley did not disappoint.
In a concluding panel discussion, SVC Executive Director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl led a discussion with Les Parks, a member of the board of the Tulalip Tribes; Chrystel Cornelius, from the Chippewa Nation in North Dakota, who runs First Nations Oweesta Corporation, a CDFI intermediary providing support to Native CDFIs and communities; Ann Whittemore, of Highlands Associates, an impact investing firm that invested in Native Capital Access, which financials tribal communities in the Southwest; and Chief Red Blood, Anthony Morales, of the Gabrielino/Tongva tribe.
The U.S. Federal Government recognizes 562 tribes; that Federal recognition is required for tribes to operate businesses on behalf of their people. Tribes don’t tax their people.
The land is a key asset that tribes can leverage to create value for the community. Absent land, an unrecognized tribe struggles. A tribe that loses its land, also loses its associated mineral, logging and fishing rights.
Chrystel and Anne are working together to fund projects in Native communities using a CDFI model. Community Development Finance Institutions work as foundational finance institutions in underserved communities.
Chrystel says Oweesta has lost money on only one loan in twenty years, losing just $4,000 on a $10,000 loan.
Two years ago, Oweesta put together a $10 million fund to support new CDFIs in the Native American community. Within the structure, Oweesta can provide support to the partner CDFIs, including by servicing loans.
Ann notes that the customers who borrow from Oweesta and its partner CDFIs are systematically underserved over generations, so the lending is having a measurable impact on Native communities. Ann has set up a the Tamalpais Trust to provide support for establishing the CDFIs.
Chief Red Blood, Anthony Morales, represents the “true tribe of the Los Angeles basin.” The tribe’s claim to the land, however, is not officially recognized. The Chief continues to fight for Federal recognition of the tribe and its land claims. Unofficially, the tribe is recognized by the Federal government and is able to participate in some Federal programs, but these do not satisfy the need for land and the stability that comes from it. “As long as I’m alive and in good health, I promised my family I would not give up,” he said.
Valerie noted that the challenges are the realities of politics resulting from the economics of tax exempt Native American businesses.
Les Parks of the Tulalip Tribes of Coastal Washington State is working to build a business–treating cancer with marijuana. The 5,000-member tribe does gaming but has learned the importance of not relying exclusively on that and is looking to continue diversifying the tribe’s economic base.
Les notes that his ancestors taught him to live and work with a single goal to make the lives of the people in the tribe better.
The history of Native American tribes’ relations with the U.S. Federal Government has been trouble. With more than 300 treaties signed with tribes, the Federal Government has violated every one.
Tribes are now looking to the improve their economic standing with support from outside investors.
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