First Nations Oweesta (or Oweesta for short) was founded in 1999 to support economic development in Native American communities across the United States by addressing a lack of financial infrastructure and money.
Oweesta, which means money or “item of exchange” in the Mohawk language, is a non-profit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI)—a federally certified class of banks, credit unions, and loan funds that are committed to making affordable, responsible loans to historically underserved and disadvantaged communities. In their words, Oweesta’s mission is to “provide opportunities for Native people to develop assets and create wealth by assisting in the establishment of strong, permanent institutions and programs, contributing to economic independence and strengthening sovereignty for all Native communities.”
Although there are more than 70 CDFIs that focus their financial empowerment work in Native American communities, Oweesta occupies a special role as a field builder within this ecosystem. Oweesta is the only Native CDFI intermediary that offers financial products (such as loans and grants) and development services exclusively to other Native CDFIs and Native communities.
Practically speaking, this means that Oweesta uses a great deal of the money borrowed or granted from investors, including Natural Investments clients, to make loans and grants to diverse Native CDFIs and communities across the country. Oweesta also provides the expert training, technical assistance, investments, systems, research, and policy advocacy needed to help Native communities develop integrated financial ecosystems that are rooted in their unique place, culture, and needs.
A great example of this can be found in the Daily Bread Bakery on the prairie of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The owner and founder, Robi Miller, wanted to offer homemade bread and pastries as a healthy alternative to conventional off-the-shelf bakery products typically made with artificial ingredients, preservatives, and food colorings.
She launched and grew her bakery with financial assistance and encouragement from the Four Bands Community Fund, which in turn is supported by First Nations Oweesta. Be sure to stop by for a delicious, healthy meal next time you’re in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and remember that by doing so, you are supporting Native entrepreneurs like Ms. Miller and her community.
Photo: From left, Elsie Meeks of First Nations Oweesta, Sylvia Panek of Natural Investments, and Susan White, Oneida Trust Department