Serving the White Earth Reservation in Northwestern Minnesota is a “really big deal” for Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union in St. Paul, Minn., says Sarah Kuesel, senior manager at the $3.8 billion asset credit union.
“I’ve worked in banking in rural Minnesota for 25 years, and what we’re doing here really matters,” she says.
In 2021, Affinity Plus merged with White Earth Reservation Federal Credit Union, which was chartered 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 resources the credit union needed to continue serving the community,” Kuesel says.
Affinity Plus leadership understood 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 a market survey of the tribe.
Doing so was critical to understanding the tribe’s needs.
The survey revealed concerns about high auto loan rates in the area, Kuesel says. “We’re focused on ensuring 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 few fees,” she says, “and we’ve eliminated our overdraft fees.”
Affinity Plus is also working with the tribe to bring a financial literacy curriculum to White Earth Tribal and Community College and the local high school. Those programs are the result of Kuesel’s ongoing work with tribal organizations.
She says the credit union’s willingness to work with tribal members, which is best illustrated each day by its branch staff, has been the key to developing trust and improving financial well-being within the White Earth community.
“Our branch staff never say ‘no.’ They come up with a plan for everyone and for every situation,” Kuesel says. “They empower the tribal members to take control of their own financial futures.”
When serving tribal members, Kuesel says it’s vital to work with regulators to accept reservation IDs to open accounts.
It’s also important to be aware of past abuses.
“Historically, communities have faced barriers to banking and racial systemic oppression with access to capital,” Kuesel says. “This lack of access can leave people vulnerable to payday loans and other predatory lenders. By entering into a Native community, it’s 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.”
Also, working with Oweesta was critical in understanding the tribe’s needs, she adds.
Oweesta and other Native American CDFIs offer training, organizational and policy development, and financial services for organizations seeking to serve Native American populations, says Stephanie Cote, Oweesta’s senior programs officer.
“We’re helping people build small businesses, buy homes” and obtain consumer loans, she says. “That takes a pipeline, but we always need more technical services. For example, we need depository services. We might offer some products that are similar, but credit unions bring so much more to a partnership.”