A Resource for Native American Members

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Serving the White Earth Reserve in northwest Minnesota is a “really big deal” for Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union in St. Paul, Minnesota, says Sarah Kuesel, senior manager at 3 Asset Credit Union, $8 billion.

“I worked in banking in rural Minnesota for 25 years, and what we do here really matters,” she says.

In 2021, Affinity Plus merged with White Earth Reservation Federal Credit Union, which was licensed to serve the tribe but was advised by the NCUA to seek a merger partner. Affinity Plus absorbed White Earth Reservation Federal and remained dedicated to serving the tribe, building a new branch on the reservation in 2022.

“The merger provided the resources the credit union needed to continue serving the community, says Kuesel.

Affinity Plus management understood that it would take more than a new branch to engage the White Earth community. The credit union hired Oweesta Corp., a Native American Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), to conduct market research on the tribe.

This was essential to understanding the needs of the tribe.

The survey revealed concerns about high auto loan rates in the area, Kuesel said. “We work to make sure they can come to us for new and used auto loans, and we’re willing to work with them.”

Fees are another important consideration. “We charge low fees,” she says, “and we’ve eliminated our overdraft fees.”

Affinity Plus is also working with the tribe to provide a financial literacy program at White Earth Tribal and Community College and the local high school. These programs are the result of Kuesel’s ongoing work with tribal organizations.

“Our branch staff never say ‘no’. They come up with a plan for everyone and every situation.

Sarah Kusel

She says the credit union’s willingness to work with tribal members, which is best exemplified every day by her branch staff, has been key to building trust and improving financial well-being within the community. White Earth.

“Our branch staff never say ‘no’. They come up with a plan for everyone and for every situation,” says Kuesel. “They allow tribal members to take control of their own financial future.”

When serving tribal members, Kuesel says it’s critical to work with regulators to accept booking credentials to open accounts.

It is also important to be aware of past abuse.

“Historically, communities have faced barriers of systemic banking and racial oppression with access to capital,” Kuesel said. “This lack of access can leave people vulnerable to payday loans and other predatory lenders. When entering an Indigenous community, it is important to recognize this complicated history and the potential resistance to financial institutions in general. Our goal is to build relationships within the community so they come to us and are treated fairly.

Additionally, working with Oweesta has been key to understanding the needs of the tribe, she adds.

Oweesta and other Native American CDFIs provide training, organizational and policy development, and financial services to organizations seeking to serve Native American populations, explains Stephanie Cote, Oweesta’s senior program manager.

“We help people start small businesses, buy houses” and get consumer loans, she says. “It takes a pipeline, but we still need more technical services. For example, we need deposit services. We may offer similar products, but credit unions bring so much more to a partnership. »


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