Tawney Brunsch (Oglala Lakota) knows what kind of difference the Lakota Federal Credit Union is making on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Forty-one percent of the Credit Union’s customers say it is the first time they have ever had a bank account. On a reservation that struggles with economic hardship and where almost 60 percent of the residents have little or no access to a bank account, it’s promising to see the community embracing the Credit Union’s services, she said.
“We’re super thrilled with how busy we are,” she said, adding that they’re working to reach even more people. “Because the reservation is so huge—3500 square miles—we have people who have still not heard of us."
Brunsch is the chairman of the board of the Credit Union and also serves as the executive director of Lakota Funds, a Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that has been providing loans and technical assistance to residents on Pine Ridge for 30 years. They currently have 70 active loan clients, $7 million in funds and have provided almost $1 million in loans this year.
The two entities go hand-in-hand, Brunsch said, and share the same building in Kyle. Everything involving Lakota Funds is business-related and everything related to the credit union is consumer-based, Brunsch explained. The Credit Union provides loans, pre-paid debit cards, savings accounts and will provide checking accounts next quarter.
“The Credit Union is a nice complement to Lakota Funds,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to remove barriers.”
One of the barriers they have focused on is providing more people access to the great services at the Credit Union by partnering with First Peoples Fund on the recently-announced Rolling Rez Arts. The Credit Union will be on the bus, which will allow customers in outlying areas to open accounts.
“We will be able to do full cash transactions and all the services on the mobile unit,” she said. “First Peoples Fund is also providing financial literacy classes for artists and our community.”
Lakota Funds received a grant from First Peoples Fund last year and they are currently in the process of hiring a driver/program associate for the mobile unit. Brunsch said the combined effort of Lakota Funds and the Credit Union has the potential to create real change on the reservation.
“There are countless ways it is beneficial,” she said. “It will have a very strong impact on the economy and our situation as being one of the poorest counties. It’s not just income level. It’s access to a financial institution. Some people have never had a relationship with a financial institution or been comfortable depositing money or tracking their money.”
Providing a real way for people to set goals, responsibly borrow money and move toward economic change, is a good start, Brunsch said.
“It may seem like an odd pair—an arts-based non-profit and a credit union, but because of our target market, it makes sense,” she said. “A lack of financial tools for people is such a big hindrance. If you can start with that basis and target artists, you can encourage them to take the next step.”