Wil Phinney

When Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation leaders realized many members didn’t have bank accounts or lines of credit, they put in place a new plan to improve financial literacy and help members obtain loans.

To do that, they launched Nixyaawii Community Financial Services, a one-stop source for a full range of financial services for the reservation’s nearly 3,000 residents. Nixyaawii Community Financial Services, which formally opened a year ago, is a community development financial institution, a nonprofit that delivers affordable lending.

Umatilla government leaders “saw the need to provide the tools so tribal members could make better financial choices for themselves and their families,” said Dave Tovey, the institution’s chief operating officer. “Even though there were other programs out there, CDFIs served a double purpose — providing loan products and financial education.”

Nixyaawii Community Financial Services now provides loans, home ownership assistance, business development services, and youth and adult financial education to members of the Umatilla Tribes and reservation residents, including the more than 1,200 reservation residents who don’t identify as Native American.

The tribal government, including the Wildhorse Resort & Casino, a market and a museum, is one of the region’s biggest employers. Many members who started with entry-level positions at tribal enterprises have achieved financial success, but lack access to traditional financial institutions.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand from Tribal members who are making more money and building careers,” Tovey said. “They want to live and work on the reservation, and maybe establish a small business."

Nixyaawii Community Financial Services is the newest community development financial institution in the Northwest Native Lending Network, which includes 14 other such facilities on reservations in Oregon, Washington state, Idaho, Montana, and northern California.

CDFI funding gives individuals “an opportunity that allows people to dream,” said Amber Shulz-Oliver, a Yakama-Wasco descendant who is the executive director at the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians – Economic Development Corporation. “Maybe they have a good idea, but don’t know how to get the money, how to do a business plan. Having a CDFI in the community allows people to start thinking about a business, to learn how, so they can build out that dream.”

In addition to financial assistance, the institution offers coaching, training, and asset-building services for new and existing small businesses and is soon to launch a new loan product for small business home-food production, including gardening and raising livestock.

NCFS’s staff is moving in late March or early April into a building that formerly housed a Dairy Queen restaurant across the highway from Wildhorse Resort & Casino. The building will provide classrooms, cameras, and monitors for classes held remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tovey, who also serves as president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians – Economic Development Corporation, said the new financial services operation will consolidate several of the tribal government’s existing programs, including home ownership and business development, and the CTUIR Loan Program, which brings a $5 million portfolio with some 1,400 loans already on the books.

For now, small business loans will be limited to $15,000; Tovey anticipates most will be much smaller, in the range of $1,000.

One major area of emphasis is providing financial education for young people. Tribal members receive about $20,000 in gaming dividends when they become adults, so-called “18 money.” Last year, Nixyaawii Community Financial Services hosted a financial education fair for high school students in the region.

“If you really want to make a change, especially a generational change, you have to start with young people,” Tovey said.

“A healthy tribal economy is based on governmental and private sector economic activity, as well as property and home ownership,” he added. “We’ve enjoyed wonderful growth of government and tribal businesses, but we still only have a handful of privately owned-and-operated small businesses. Without that private sector, our economy remains one of big inputs and big leakages.”

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