A financial institution on the Pine Ridge Reservation is giving Lakota tribal members the opportunity to conduct banking transactions within close proximity to their homes for the first time in history. The Lakota Federal Credit Union also allows tribal members to not only save money, but to invest in fellow tribal members.
But you can’t save or invest unless you open an account and make deposits.
It’s a perfect day for the long drive from Hot Springs to Kyle for a visit to the Lakota Federal Credit Union. The sun is shining. The temperature’s warm; not hot…but a bit humid – so the a/c is on.
A hawk flies over my car as I cross on to the Pine Ridge Reservation just east of Oelrichs. Always nice to see nature up-close.
Half an hour later, I pause at Big Bat’s – in Pine Ridge village – for a cool drink and run into an old friend. Forty minutes go by while I travel past the Wounded Knee grave site and through the village of Porcupine, before stopping again at Sharps Corner…nature calls.
Twenty minutes more and I’m standing in the lobby of the Lakota Federal Credit Union...2 hours and 114 miles from my home. As much as I enjoyed the ride, it’s not s trip I’d like to make on a regular basis…especially to make banking transactions.
But as Lakota Federal Credit Union chairman Tawney Brunsch points out, that’s exactly what tribal members living here have had to do.
“The truth is we’re 20 months old,” Brunsch explains. “And so we’re less than 2 years old. We’re serving the Pine Ridge Reservation…which has never had a financial institution…period…whether it’s been federally insured…like the credit union is, or not.”
Prior to the credit union opening its doors in November 2012, tribal members who needed to make financial transactions had to journey off the reservation to do so. The closest banking institutions in Gordon or Rushville, Nebraska were about an hour away for most. But many folks had to drive to Hot Springs or Rapid City for their banking needs – oftentimes the equivalent of my journey here. But that was then, says Tawney Brunsch.
“We’ve got over 1600 members,” Brumsch comments. “I mean, we were just downstairs…they’ve opened up 9 accounts already today. You know what I mean? And that’s just every day.”
Along with those unexpectedly high numbers of credit union members has been a large number of loan applications, notes Tawney Brunsch. In fact, many more than expected.
“That consumer loan demand we knew was there but, honestly, we didn’t have any idea in the projections,” says Brunsch. “You know, I blew away the projections in the first quarter for all 3 years on this credit union. To give you an idea of what kind of consumer loan demand we’re meeting, we approved 78 loans last month alone totaling $478,000...almost $479,000…in one month. That’s what kind of consumer loan demand there is. And, so, therein lies the challenge.”
The “challenge” being to get enough tribal members to invest in the credit union by opening accounts, depositing their money and thereby creating a financial source for other tribal members to draw on for loans. In an environment where most people have never had a bank account, educating the public to the idea of financial responsibility isn’t accomplished overnight.
Teller Shayna Richards explains that many tribal members have come into the credit union over recent months with large checks they received…either from the Cobell lawsuit settlement or from the federal land buy-back program. Although their denominations were for 4 or 5 figure amounts, Richards says tribal members rarely deposited money from those checks.
“We’ve been seeing checks from $1300 all the way up to like $98,000,” says Richards. “And the majority of them are coming direct deposit…which is pretty good. But then we have this big majority of them that are just coming in off the street with checks wanting cash right now for like…$34,000…which is pretty crazy. It’s a lot of money.”
A lot of money to walk away with and not keep safe in a bank…and a lot of money not to invest in CDs or make available to other credit union members for loans. Tawney Brunsch says that’s where financial management education comes in, something the Lakota Federal Credit Union is pursuing from one-on-one interactions, to advertisements and classroom instruction.
Tawney Brunsch says the best example she can offer of how a credit union works is in the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It’s the scene where George Bailey…in the person of actor James Stewart…is trying to stop a run on the Bailey Savings and Loan.
Speaking to the crowd that’s gathered, George Bailey says: “You’re thinking of this place all wrong…as if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Why your money’s in Joes’ house…that’s right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house and in Mrs. Maitland’s house and in a hundred others. You’re lending them the money to build and then they’re gonna pay it back to you as best they can.”
Being a member of the Lakota Federal Credit Union, says Tawney Brunsch, not only safeguards your money and helps fellow tribal members with their own financial needs, but it keeps Lakota money on the Pine Ridge Reservation…and that can lead to a wonderful Lakota life.
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