Increasing resiliency in Indian Country

By Dawson Her Many Horses, head of Native American Banking – Commercial Banking, Wells Fargo

The  574 tribal communities that exist across the U.S. represent some of the most diverse, proud and culturally connected areas in the country. Wells Fargo has a more than 60-year history of supporting these residents, businesses and tribal governments, including banking more than 400 Native American and Alaska Native tribal entities in 25 states. 

Wells Fargo’s commitment also includes:

  • Making a five year, $50 million commitment to American Indian/Alaskan Native communities
  • Donating more than $6.4 million to the Native Forward to provide scholarships, support, and emergency COVID 19 funding to undergraduate and professional students
  • Supporting GRID Alternative to launch its Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund for food ready, solar energy projects in Tribal communities
  • Assisting Oweesta to catalyze the growth of startup and emerging Native Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) to deliver equity grants and loan capital 

Despite their many successes,  tribal communities are economically invisible in our country, and this impedes  economic development and sap their economic resiliency in times of crisis. It’s a harsh reality that events like the COVID-19 pandemic, 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008 only exacerbated. 

Leveling the economic playing field for native communities is one reason why Wells Fargo created our Diverse Segments team. Dedicating expert resources and taking a more inclusive approach to financial services helps widen financial access and incent growth. It’s also why I invest my own time and energy in advocacy, awareness and new collaborations, all designed to help advance tribal communities.

Tribal communities face three longstanding obstacles 

Economic resiliency is key. It means having the ability to withstand or quickly recover from severe external shocks, such as a financial crisis or global pandemic. Wells Fargo and the Boston Consulting Group recently conducted extensive research on economic resiliency in Indian Country. 

As our new report shows, native communities face three obstacles to economic opportunity:

  1. Data gaps. Basic financial information is fundamental when financial entities make lending and investment decisions. No primer defines tribal economies, describes the industries tribes operate in, or provides an overview of how tribally owned businesses are structured.  This hampers the flow of money and resources into tribal communities and can exclude native voices and communities from important legislation.
  2. Digital desert. Businesses with a strong online presence typically outperform those without. Yet many tribal communities lack consistent and affordable access to high quality internet service. Freer, fairer access to broadband could enable a wave of technology advancement for native communities, helping improve everything from education and entrepreneurship to job opportunities and digital banking.  
  3. Fragmented capital landscape. Attracting new and varied investors is a final requirement for economic resilience in Indian Country. Today, a many different types of financial institutions with varying levels of presence and investment ranges support projects in tribal communities. But, closing gaps can introduce opportunities for new players, such as private equity, venture capital, digital, or Neobanks. More sources of funding with greater capital capacity can accelerate and amplify economic opportunity at all levels. 

New thinking can bridge gaps and fuel progress

Making progress benefits more than just tribal communities. When Indian Country advances, it elevates surrounding communities. Native communities, especially those with thriving hospitality infrastructure from casinos, gaming, hotels and entertainment, create large employment bases for both native and non-native staff. Tribal communities promote tourism, development and economic progress. 

There’s a role for all of us in addressing to these three interconnected factors, one that demands new ways of thinking and responding. 

  • Tribes can start by executing on high-priority, high-potential opportunities including bridging the digital divide. 
  • National banks can join with other capital providers to provide funding and share technology. 
  • Governments at all levels can establish public-private partnerships to build out projects. 

Cumulatively, these constructive actions will contribute to a more prosperous, vital, and economically resilient Indian Country.

Learn more by downloading a copy of our report, “Indian Country’s Once-in-a-Seven-Generation Opportunity.”