New Credit Union for Pine Ridge

This article appeared in Indian Country Today in 2012. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Lakota Federal Credit Union, approved in September 2012 by the National Credit Union Administration, will hit the ground running with an office opening its doors in November. The facility will be in Kyle, South Dakota, in the northern portion of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, according to Tawney Bruncsh, Oglala Lakota. The Lakota Funds employee Whitney O’Rourke, also Oglala Lakota, will manage the new FCU.

The credit union will provide consumer financial services—secured and unsecured loans, money orders, cashier’s checks, online banking, check cashing and more—to members who live, work, worship, volunteer, attend school and/or transact business on Pine Ridge. That’s a potential customer pool of about 40,000, according to the credit union administration. Population centers around the reservation will get ATMs.

 “In November, you’ll be able to come in with five dollars and an ID and open an account,” said Brunsch.

Lakota FCU manager Whitney O’Rourke
News of the approval spread quickly yesterday on Pine Ridge. “We’re already getting lots of calls about auto loans,” Brunsch said, “and we’re taking applications for staff.”

“It’s exciting news and something I’ve wanted for a long time,” said Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele. “It’ll provide needed services to the people and spur economic growth on Pine Ridge.”

Brunsch is director of Lakota FCU’s sponsoring organization, Lakota Funds, a 26-year-old community development financial organization, or CDFI. She said the three-year approval process involved developing a business plan and financial projections and obtaining training for the new director.

“We’ve known for awhile that approval was imminent, so the space is completely ready. Whitney has served as a teller and learned the relevant software and back-office operations at the regional credit unions that mentored us,” said Brunsch. The mentors include Black Hills Federal Credit Union, where Brunsch, whose economics degree is from South Dakota State University, was a branch manager before moving to Lakota Funds.

Pine Ridge’s new credit union will offer services to consumers (businesses will still go to Lakota Funds). It has a low-income designation, which allows it to accept non-member deposits. “That means others will be able to support us by depositing their money here,” said Brunsch. At the end of three years, the assets of the new credit union are projected to hit $2.3 million, she said.

“Every American deserves access to affordable financial services,” said NCUA board chairman Debbie Matz. “Unfortunately, many Native Americans on reservations only have access to predatory lenders. This means Lakota Federal Credit Union has the potential to play an important role on Pine Ridge, a 2.2-million-acre reservation with no other access to federally insured financial services.”

O’Rourke, who also has a South Dakota State University economics degree, has confirmed that residents of Pine Ridge, one of the poorest counties in the nation, have often turned to predatory lenders, which charge sky-high interest rates for short-term loans. Borrowers may pay up to several hundred percent interest in a matter of weeks or months.

That, in turn, mean Lakota Funds has frequently had to help Pine Ridge residents clean up their credit before they could apply for other kinds of loans. Financial literacy and homebuyer-education classes are very popular, according to Brunsch. “Our training numbers are through roof,” she said. “People want to learn to save so they can pay for an education, start a business, buy a home and more. The new credit union will help them step up to those kinds of loans. And that’s what it’ll take to create jobs in our region.”

Both Matz and Steele commended all those who worked hard for three years to make Lakota FCU a reality.

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph c. Joseph Zummo.

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