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Indian Financial Action Program Featured at White House

A Native American perspective was presented during the White House’s first-ever Summit on Financial Capability and Empowerment, held May 10 in Washington, D.C.

Tanya Fiddler, executive director of the Four Bands Community Loan Fund, a Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) located on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, was on hand to explain how her program is promoting the financial empowerment of tribal citizens—young and old—in her region. She took part in a panel discussion of leaders from states, cities, organizations and businesses who attended the program.

“She has actually taken concrete steps and initiated a number of programs…to replace poverty and unemployment with financial literacy and entrepreneurship,” said Nancy Kopp, state treasurer of Maryland, in introducing Fiddler at the event.

“We need both things—we need literate individuals and communities with clear and easily accessible information. We also need a decent economy, fair wages, and enforcement of the law,” Kopp added.

Fiddler explained that her program started over a decade ago on the reservation with the goals of creating a real private sector, and to help individuals build and grow their assets. She explained that the counties where the reservation is located have historically been some of the most poverty-stricken in the nation.

“We also have a lot of wonderful attributes, especially in traditional and cultural economies, that we needed to revive,” Fiddler said. “Lakota people were long strong in resource management, planning, self-sufficiency, and all of that. And we wanted to bring that back.”

With 45 percent of the population they were working with under the age of 18, Fiddler said they soon realized that they needed to target youth in a big way. They did so through a “making waves” campaign that offers toolkits to local teachers to integrate financial planning and literacy programs into the K-12 system. The toolkits include a curriculum, including example lesson plans and savings advice for youth.

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Knowing that teachers in the area were already hard-pressed for resources, Fiddler said the program was developed not to become a new burden, but as a tool to be added into classes already in place.

“Once you provide teachers in the system with a viable tool…engaging them and supporting with the implementation…today, we don’t go back to the schools. There are five schools on our reservation, and we don’t go back in every year, and say, ‘now you have to teach this.’”

That added work isn’t necessary, Fiddler said, because teachers and students have seen that the program works: “When you start to see the positive effects of our kids being encouraged, some of them even starting businesses, increasing [numbers of] savings accounts in our communities, we don’t have to go back out and tell them.”

Fiddler said that as more people on her reservation are touched by the program, it becomes part of the way of life. And the philosophy is spreading to other partner reservations, she said.

“Once you get the buy-in and everybody agrees and holds those values up…it really takes off,” Fiddler said, adding that to date 500 adult individuals have completed personal finance training through the Native CDFI, and many have worked to improve their credit scores through a credit-building program offered by her organization.

Charlie Galbraith, associate director in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, wrote on the White House Blog that Native American CDFIs were established by the federal government in 1994 as an attempt to overcome barriers to financial services that often exist in Indian country through two specific strategies: “First, through training and education tailored to tribal communities, and second, through program funding and resources that increases the number of Native CDFIs and improves their capacity.” These programs are guided and funded by the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Currently, the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability is leading a nationwide effort to promote the growth of more Native CDFIs to “spearhead financial capability initiatives across the country,” according to Galbraith. “Many states, tribes and local governments are already leading the charge to promote financial capability in their jurisdictions,” he added.

Beyond CDFIs, summit leaders said that there are other financial programs serving tribal communities throughout the federal government, including those at the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Native American Affairs and the U.S. Department of Commerce.