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A conversation with Chickasaw/Creek J.D. Colbert of Native American Bank

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DENVER -- J.D. Colbert, Chickasaw/Creek, was recently named president of the four-year-old Native American Bank and appointed to the national advisory board of Native American Capital, LP. Colbert has been in banking most of his professional life, except for a stint with the BIA and as a tribal administrator. He received a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Oklahoma and earned a master's degree in administration, planning and social policy from Harvard University and another master's degree in organizational development from Johns Hopkins University.

Colbert is the founder of the North American Native Bankers Association and serves as the organization's president.

Indian Country Today was able to take him away from his busy schedule to answer a few questions.

QUESTION: You have an impressive bio. How did you get into banking?

ANSWER: Actually, I think it was from the experiences I had as a young person growing up in a family headed by my mother [which] included my two brothers and my sister. My biological father abandoned our family when I was six weeks old. We never saw him; he never supported us. My mother was working [as a] nurse assistant in Claremore, Okla. Economically we had a tough go of it; not as bad as others, but it had its tough moments. My mother always handled her financial affairs in a sensible manner, paid her bills on time and that sort of thing, but she was never able to get a home loan -- she would always get turned down. We were always renting places and typically having to move about every six months. I remember moving all the time.

When I got to college and began studying business, I learned a few things about how the finance world worked and basically figured out the reason my mother had been turned down. Basically [it was] because she was a single mother and an Indian woman: otherwise she met the test for receiving credit like others would receive. So that impacted me and after a fashion it was my passion in life to do what I could to rectify that situation by making credit and home mortgages and other financial service readily available in Indian country.

Q: Why did you study business?

A: I think because I had a facility for business and economics, I did well in those classes in high school, whereas [in] a lot of other classes, math and history and so forth, I did poorly. I realized pretty early on that I may have a talent and a little head for business.

Q: When we think of somebody like that, we think of a geek. Do you have fun in any way?

A: [laughing] I try to have a lot of fun: I love going out. My wife and I, we like live music, especially jazz; we enjoy dinner parties and have people over. I have three dogs that I love a lot, that bring a lot of joy to my life and my wife's life.

Q: You just came to this national bank. What kind of expectations do you have?

A: The vision of the founders of the bank is that the bank would become a national Indian bank, by that they meant that Native American Bank would become the premier provider of credit and home mortgages and business loans and so forth across Indian country. I think that is a good and valid vision for this bank. If indeed Native American Bank is to live up and fulfill it vision, we need to have a greater presence across Indian country: that means we have to have branches where the tribes are so that we can be their bank.

We have a number of tribes that have invested in our bank and we appreciate their confidence.

Q: You are set up at this point to deliver any service a tribe or organization wants?

A: We are, by and large; however, we are a bit hamstrung in that a lot of services that we are now delivering we deliver from a distance, via what I call "electronic smoke signals." Using technology to wire money and provide various services. That's well and good. Unless we have branches out there where the rubber meets the road, I don't think we are going to be able to provide the full scope of services that a lot of tribes want and a lot of tribal members need in their communities.

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Q: Has it been difficult to this point, and is it getting easier?

A: Yes to both: it has been difficult to this point in the sense that Native American Bank was a new bank just four years ago. For any new bank and any new business, there is a certain ramp-up time that you have being a brand-new business to get on your feet more and find your bearings a little more. NAB has experienced that and gone through it.

Four years later I would say our operations are indeed easier; for example, we have developed a strong name recognition across Indian country and have a strong market acceptance from Indian country. For example, we are very pleased that a number of tribes and tribal organizations are calling us and asking if we can provide certain kinds of services. We are very pleased about that.

Q: Did your time with the BIA help you in this endeavor?

A: Oh, yeah, very much so. I value my three years I spent at BIA in Washington, D.C., where I was heading up their economic development programs, including the loan guarantee program. I made a number of friendships and connections that have lasted over the years. During those three years, at a minimum I personally visited some 50 reservation across the country and up in Alaska. I think it provides a really good background and experience for my success here as president of Native American Bank.

Q: You are the first American Indian to be president of a bank that is this large.

A: Yes; in fact, as far as I know there are 10 tribally owned banks in the country and I'm the only Native president of any of those. And I believe -- this part I'm not sure about -- that I'm the very first Native American president of a tribally owned bank in the history of the U.S.

Q: Are you pretty cultural?

A: Yeah, pretty cultural. I grew up with the Muskogee/Creek people in and around the Tulsa area. Even though I'm enrolled with the Chickasaw nation, I grew up with the Creeks, and I only really got to know my Chickasaw relations in probably the past 10 years. Over the years, I've participated in Stomp Dances with the Muskogee-Creek people; every now and then I will get out and do some Gourd dancing.

I grew up in an Indian community in Oklahoma, and went to church at the Indian Methodist church in Claremore and other places in northeast Oklahoma. Also, I'm a product of an Indian boarding school, during my grammar school years, in a place called Oaks Indian Mission just outside of Tahlequah, Okla., and I'm now I'm on the board of that organization.

These are all experiences that I value a great deal and that were central to my formation as a person.

Q: It seems like you have an understanding of Indian country.

A: I think I bring a unique experienced background and perspective, if only because I have a lot of experience in banking and in what I would call non-Indian banking as well; overlaid with my growing up in Indian country and my professional experiences of working in Indian country, the BIA for example. I've also been a tribal administrator for a 25,000-member tribe. I think I can marry up those two viewpoints. I think a lot of non-Indian bank presidents might see problems; I see opportunities.

The last thing I would say is, I talked about the vision of this bank. I am, and my staff and the board are, developing a strategy for how we can go about establishing these various branches. We haven't quite finalized this, but we've got a strategy that we are working on that I would call a kind of play on the Kevin Costner movie, "Field of Dreams." We would call it "If you build it, they will come."

If the tribe will build us a facility, we will lease it from them.