A resource for Native American members

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Serving the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota is a “big deal” for Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union in St. Paul, Minnesota, says Sarah Kuesel, a senior manager at the credit union with assets of $3.8 billion.

“I’ve been 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 authorized to serve the tribe but was advised by the NCUA to find a merger partner. Affinity Plus absorbed the 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 leadership understood that it would take more than a new branch to engage the White Earth community. The credit union hired Oweesta Corporationa Native American Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), to conduct a market survey of the tribe.

Doing so was critical to understanding the needs of the tribe.

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

Rates are another important consideration. “We charge few fees,” he 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.

‘Our branch staff never say ‘no’. They propose a plan for everyone and for every situation.’

sarah kuesel

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

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

When serving tribal members, Kuesel says it’s vital to work with regulators to accept reservation IDs to open accounts.

It is also important to be aware of past abuses.

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

Also, working with Oweesta was instrumental in understanding the needs of the tribe, he 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, senior director of programs for Oweesta.

“We’re helping people build small businesses, buy houses” and get consumer loans, she says. “That requires a pipeline, but we always need more technical services. For example, we need deposit services. We could offer some products that are similar, but credit unions bring much more to a society.”

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