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    J.S. Onésimo "Ness" Sandoval
  • Megan Minoka-Hill
    Megan Minoka-Hill
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    Susan C. Faircloth
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    Tiana Suazo
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    J.S. Onésimo "Ness" Sandoval
  • Megan Minoka-Hill
    Megan Minoka-Hill
  • Susan C. Faircloth
    Susan C. Faircloth
  • Tiana Suazo
    Tiana Suazo
  • J.S. Onésimo "Ness" Sandoval
    J.S. Onésimo "Ness" Sandoval

Historically, Native communities defined currencies by their food, relationships, nature and tools to sustain a living. Over time, Native and Indigenous populations gave way to the use of paper money. These new social standards pushed them to adopt different ways to sustain their living, often, outside their reservations and communities, which may be critical in building wealth.

Many studies and reports point to poor choices, failure to conform to government policies and lack of knowledge on managing funds as reasons Native communities remain in poverty, which may not be the case. Several factors may contribute to money challenges Natives face in their communities. Learning more about how some Native communities build wealth and the financial challenges they face can help create a more equitable financial foundation for communities across the country.

Understanding Wealth History in Native Communities

Before movement from their lands by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Native/Indigenous peoples enjoyed the lands’ bounties for hunting, fishing, gathering, housing, clothing, tools and other forms of natural currencies that contributed to their thriving lifestyles. Many Indigenous people continue to view relationships and nature as communal forms of currency.

With some of these natural currencies removed, many Native Nations start to decline. Tribes, then, engaged with U.S. Congress through land and other treaties for sovereignty and self-determination. The treaties often led to dependence on the government, loss of autonomy and new forms of poverty, such as breaking down social supports and causing social distresses and psychological traumas.

The Government's Impact

The U.S. Congress still controls commerce, as defined in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. Ratified in 1791, this piece of legislation offered sovereignty, but with severe restrictions, especially in resource development, trade and limited tribal sovereignty. These restrictions created dependencies for food, jobs, education and health services. Even with disagreements between Native nations and Congress, situations gradually improved for some tribes, but sovereignty alone does not guarantee prosperity.

With Indian lands being owned and managed by the federal government, most Natives living on reservations do not hold deeds to their homes and the land on which their home sits. The Nations, with the fewest resources to create access to wealth, often do not have banks, leaving many Native people vulnerable to payday and title loan companies owned by non-Natives and situated outside the reservation boundaries. Off-reservation pawnbrokers do this in the same way. Often, those remain as the only access to funds when the people sell goods for a small price, only to lose the personal property from high-interest loan costs due at repayment.

While the removal officially took place nearly 200 years ago, those decisions continue to undermine financial independence for some Native/Indigenous communities.

5 Ways to Address Money Challenges in Native Communities

An illustration of a young mother watering a money plant and a young father leaning on a stack of coins while a young child is jumping for joy in the background.

Some Native/Indigenous populations do not have access to wealth opportunities, such as education, jobs, housing and social status. Without ways to create wealth, it continues to affect Native people for generations. You may lack the ability to manage your finances for yourself or your family.

To help, community builders work with tribal members to maximize natural resources through gardening, farming, ranching, restoring food-ways and building community to continue strengthening a sense of place and pride in Native identity.

Here are ways to support building and restoring traditional methods in your communities.

1. Discuss Money Management Skills Early

In the 2015 National Financial Capability Study, 63% of the 591 Native American participants reported they could not meet their financial obligations. In addition, according to American Communities Project, “Native peoples are the least likely of all population groups to plan for retirement, have an emergency fund or have a checking account.”

Each Native tribe has unique governing structures, which tribal leaders may be the best to develop financial awareness among their communities. Native educators can also introduce goal-setting and financial management to children.

“Building Native Nations through socially responsive investing and infrastructure supports — which promote jobs, wealth-building, health, education, food security and food sovereignty — will build a strong Indian Country,” said Megan Minoka-Hill (Oneida), director of the Honoring Nations program at Harvard and the program director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

Because the Native Nations are diverse and exist across North America and other islands, there can be many ways the 574 federally recognized tribes can address the money management barrier for your well-being and the community.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

The First Nations Development Institute website empowers Natives to become self-sufficient and restore your pride in Native/Indigenous ways. Through various ways to develop commerce with food and money management, Natives are more likely to be able to earn a living, save money and invest toward their futures.

For example, the Quapaw Nation addresses employment and resource development for its citizens through its agricultural programs. You may find similar support from your tribal leaders in concert with other tribal leaders. Similar to the other Native Nations, Quapaw funds its government with gaming by diversifying its economy with natural resources and farming. It provides jobs and economic opportunities that benefit both Native and non-Native societies financially.

2. Restore Native Communities By Building Assets

Of the 591 Natives surveyed in the National Financial Capability Study, 41% reported spending an amount of money equal to their monthly incomes. That means there may not be much left for emergency funds, investing or saving for the future.

Some tribes restore their communities through various resources and assets, which can teach other Native Nations how to reach financial security. For example, the Center for Social Development's policy report highlights the wide array of resources available to help Natives take control of their lives and encourages them to participate in their communities in meaningful and effective ways. The report further discusses ways to build wealth in tribal communities, focusing on building assets and providing helpful action plans and approaches.

Besides financial holdings, you can look at assets as the natural resources around you, such as relationships, as your own marketable and life-sustaining skills.

Assets are also in the physical infrastructure of your tribal community, the community’s institutions, legal and political support and most importantly, your cultural assets. Natives thrived for thousands of years before colonial settlers came to North America. There are ways to restore native assets and turn them into currencies to benefit Native communities.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Working to build various assets can foster financial security and a sense of control when it comes to money. When you begin to look at the assets in your tribal community, you can continue to build self-confidence, emotional well-being and educate others on how to manage their finances through saving and investing plans and emergency funds. The more Native peoples can build, the more they can share with their wider communities.

You can also find help in filing your taxes. You can receive earned income tax credits if you are eligible. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) helps individuals with low or moderate incomes get a tax break. It can reduce the taxes you may owe or give you a higher refund. Check the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website to see if you or your family qualify for the EITC tax break.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference, a Native consortium of 42 Alaskan Native villages, also works with university students to assist tribal citizens in filing income tax forms.

3. Use Traditional Values to Empower Finances

For some tribes, getting back to their roots of honoring the natural resources can help make their way back to security and wealth. One quarter of Natives in the National Financial Capability Study said they occasionally overdraw their checking accounts. That percentage aligns with the overall percentage of Natives living in poverty on a national level, according to the U.S. Census.

While checking accounts are not the same as traditional forms of currencies, you can look to your traditional values and adopt similar concepts when using modern financial resources.

Tiana Suazo (Taos/Jemez Pueblos), the executive director of the Red Willow Center, explains as a traditional practice, the Taos Peoples kept food storages for seven years, so when droughts in hunting and crop-raising hit, every citizen met their nutritional needs. Farming, in this way, was many Native communities’ source of income since they traded with other people. Those food storages disappeared when their foodways were taken away with colonization and removal.

In traditional culture, Native/Indigenous peoples who obtained any source of wealth, such as a valuable tool or food, were expected to share these resources with others in the community. By sharing, you and future generations can continue to grow and benefit from reserves.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Many tribal governments have their culture and values reflected in their businesses and programs. For example, the Oneida Nation uses specific investment strategies to “bring about corporate awareness and positive change” to its community. The Nation uses modern-day tools and resources to manage its finances and assets while it keeps its belief to share wealth within the community. Investing helps the Oneida Nation put its tribal funds to work.

With traditional values in mind, you might consider responsible investing (RI) to help you create wealth within your community. RI, also known as socially responsible investing, is an investment strategy based on both positive social and personal returns for the individual. From there, you might also consider saving for retirement or helping elder Natives understand the importance of a retirement plan.

If you are a Native/Indigenous educator, you might be able to create a Native-centric experience for young families, such as this Family Financial StoryWalk from Kansas State University. Families can learn and be with nature.

4. Use Assistance Programs to Help With Finances

Because Natives moved from their food and land resources, which plunged them into generations of poverty, they struggled with new ways to earn living wages and navigate the often exclusionary systems that run counter to their traditional ways of life. It can make it harder to fulfill monthly payments and save money over time without a strong foundation.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Most Natives have access to some types of federal assistance, but you must meet specific criteria and provide documentation to be eligible. If you are unsure if you qualify for tribal benefits, Powwows.com lists the percentage of tribal blood you must have. You will also need a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). And you will need to have the blood identified with a federally recognized tribe. This can be the first step to stabilizing your household.

You can also find other benefits meant for a general population of people living in poverty, which you do not have to be tribally enrolled, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for food stamps and other food-related benefits and SNAP for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) for expectant mothers and mothers with newborn babies. Most communities have some form of a public health department to help you medically. Check with the county nearest to your Native community or school leaders for more information.

5. Be Aware of Predatory Lenders and Find Ways to Manage Debt

The National Financial Capability Study reported that a quarter of Natives surveyed said they receive money from family members. Many Natives continue to learn how to manage money on a personal level and then share it with others. For those who need to borrow money, be aware of predatory lenders such as payday and title lenders with their very high-interest rates. Using such sources for borrowing money can set you up for larger debt that you might not be able to repay.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

You can educate yourself and be aware of any predatory lenders, such as mortgage scams or unfair student loan practices.

You can also search for resources through the Cooperative Research and Extension Services offices to help you understand finances and manage debt. Reach out to your nearest office if you know and trust any of the educators. It is a national extension from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. You may be able to find a cooperative extension at universities.

When you dive in, many of the lessons come in a self-learning format, such as this financial checkup worksheet to help you reassess your money situation and provide tips to save, or this guide to help you become job-ready that offers tools for goal-setting, job-skill assessment, resume-writing, application protocols and handling a variety of job situations.

If you feel better about learning with a group, an educator from your community can easily facilitate the lesson.

Insight from Native Experts on Systemic Barriers to Wealth

MoneyGeek spoke with several Native American experts who weigh in on the systemic barriers and financial challenges the Native communities face and discuss wealth-building opportunities.

  1. As we look at taking Indian Country from poverty to wealth-building, what do you see as the best strategies, and what lessons should we learn? What are some finding successes?
  2. What is sovereignty? Does it benefit everybody? Do all Nations have the power of self-determination?
  3. From an educational aspect, what is the best way to teach children about building social, cultural and financial capital related to collective self-determination?
  4. How do food security and food sovereignty in Native communities contribute to financial well-being and self-determination?
  5. Can you talk about poverty and how it persists in many U.S. populations that we may find in Native American communities?
  6. What do we see as helpful and harmful in such communities?

Megan Minoka-Hill
Megan Minoka-HillProgram Director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at Harvard Kennedy School
Susan C. Faircloth
Susan C. FairclothProfessor and Director of the School of Education at Colorado State University
Tiana Suazo
Tiana SuazoExecutive Director at Red Willow Center
J.S. Onésimo "Ness" Sandoval
J.S. Onésimo "Ness" SandovalAssociate Director of GeoSLU

Additional Resources to Support Native Communities

An illustration of a young father with his son on his shoulder and his wife by his side meeting his parents in a grassy meadow.

Many Native Nations find ways to diversify their present resources to meet the needs of tribal citizens and non-Native people. You can find additional programs and organizations that support Native communities below.

Financial Education and Assistance Programs

  • Chickasaw Community Bank: This tribally-owned community bank serves the Native community and beyond. CCB features an online financial learning center with learning modules on personal finance, small business, mortgage, spreadsheets and identity theft prevention.
  • Direct Assistance (Financial Assistance & Social Services): The U.S. Department of the Interior Indian Affairs provides direct assistance through the Financial Assistance and Social Services (FASS). It is available to tribe members who may not qualify for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) services.
  • First Nations Community Financial: This website helps with one-on-one credit counseling, financial skills workshops and small business planning to the Ho-Chunk community delivered by Natives. Educational workshops focus on family financial skills, homebuyer education, investing and Indianpreneurship.
  • Native American Financial Services Association: NAFSA’s financial lesson guide offers video presentations on how to operate a business, understand finances, make major decisions such as buying a house or taking a car loan, plan for your future, how to protect your elders from fraud and navigate banking and credit through its financial tool kit.
  • Housing Improvement Program Assistance (HIP): The U.S. Department of the Interior Indian Affairs offers HIP to Native Americans and Alaska Natives who need housing and/or housing repair assistance. The HIP can provide up to $7,500 for housing repairs, up to $60,000 for repairs and renovation and provide replacement or new homes. You must meet several requirements to be eligible.
  • Pay Yourself First Worksheet: The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research and Extension created this worksheet to help you manage, budget and save your money.
  • Scholarship Resources for Native American Students: Native American students can apply to several different scholarships and grants to aid them through college. This resource guide provides information on what you will need to prove your ancestry, lists of scholarship programs you may be eligible for and ways to save and budget.

Advocacy Organizations and Community Support Groups

  • First Nations Development Institute: This “Changing Narratives about Native American” guide discusses changes from Euro-centric approaches to Native-centric traditions. It honors the currencies of Native people, land use, trade, elder knowledge, nature and food storage. This Native/Indigenous-led organization helps its people regain their confidence in their rich history. It illustrates how many Natives stay strong in the face of marginalization and poverty to emerge as resilient leaders in their communities and the Nation. Programs include household and community-asset building, financial empowerment and how to manage Native lands.
  • NDN Collective: This nonprofit organization supports Native advocacy through activism, grant-making, community-organizing and other campaigns to build Native Nations and promote self-determination.
  • Red Willow Center: The Red Willow Center provides a community support group where Indigenous people can share their knowledge, talents and stories through webinars and workshops. It also offers a “Food Systems Matchmaker” program to help with contactless food exchange and a “Living Library” program where interns share what they learn and are ready to pass on to the next interns or the community.

How Some Native Communities Are Building Wealth

  • Ho-Chunk Inc and Ho-Chunk Village: The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska created Ho-Chunk, Inc. to boost economic development on the Reservation. It maintains a solid separation between business and tribal government. The concept of starting small and building talent from within tribal boundaries assures members to work toward financial success.
  • Quil Ceda Village: The Tulalip Tribe created Quil Ceda Village to function as a municipality by focusing on the community infrastructure that assures good roads, adequate water supply and an efficient sewage process. The infrastructure’s success lies in the Tribe’s ability to tax economic development to advance tribal environmental and cultural values.
  • Lummi Wetland and Habitat Mitigation Bank: As Native Nations find more success in the stewardship of natural resources, the Lummi Nation advances its work to manage reservation lands. The Lummi created the wetland and habitat mitigation bank to address land issues, generate income while retaining treaty rights to hunt, fish, gather and perform ceremonies in the protected areas.
  • Tsigo bugeh Village: The Ohkay Owingeh citizens shed themselves of the federal government’s restrictive housing policies that did not meet the people's cultural ways. Tsigo bugeh Village allows the people, once again, to live close to family and friends in homes built with cultural wisdom into modern units. This restoration of traditional ways included decision-making about village resources that meets the needs of the whole village.
  • Owe’neh Bupingeh: Restoring housing to “contain the breath and sweat of our people,” Ohkay Owingeh re-united the people who had been scattered through governmental housing projects. Through the urging of tribal leaders, the people engaged financial institutions and New Mexico Cultural Affairs Heritage Preservation to restore housing that better reflected traditional living structures.

About the Author


expert-profile

Debra J. Bolton, PhD is the director of intercultural learning and academic success and a faculty member in the department of geography and geospatial sciences at Kansas State University. She plays a key role in fostering cross-cultural relationships, student advocacy, intercultural learning and other educational development aspects at the university. Bolton’s research focuses on education, health, well-being, community integration and social networks. She targets systemic change to improve the university’s efforts to recruit and retain students, faculty and staff of historically excluded and other under-represented or “invisible” populations. Recently, she contributed a chapter on women in the African diaspora centered on displaced women in rural communities “finding a home.” Bolton, a National Geographic Society Explorer, introduces geospatial analysis and geography to high school-aged females of color, a grossly under-represented population in the geosciences and other STEM disciplines. In addition, Dr. Bolton serves on the Board of Trustees of the Kansas Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

She also focuses her research on immigrant and refugee communities in the Midwest. She studies the affects that forced migration has on the physical, emotional and financial well-being of families. Bolton identifies as Indigenous (Ohkay Owingeh/Dine/Ute), which greatly influences her interests in the financial well-being of people forced from their land and homes.


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