Trailblazer: Native American Bank

Thomas Ogaard, president/CEO of Native American Bank, is pictured with Shadana Sultan (Oglala Lakota), executive director of Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce.

Native American Bank is a CDFI and the only national American Indian-owned bank in the country. At its heart is a mission to help native peoples succeed.

By Jolene Johnson

While it’s true that some Native American communities—such as the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the Prairie Island Indian Community in Minnesota—experience financial success through the operation of casinos, most do not.

Name: Native American Bank
Asset size: $104 million
Location: Denver

“Most tribes are rural, and if they have a casino it may break even; it may make them a little bit of money,” says Thomas Ogaard, president and CEO of Native American Bank, which is based in Denver. “But the vast majority of tribes don’t have that opportunity.”

The reality is that many Native Americans don’t have access to financial capital and services, which can be a roadblock to financial freedom and self-sufficiency.

Quick stat


Number of federally recognized tribes in the United States

So, nearly 20 years ago, then-Sen. Daniel Inouye from Hawaii worked with Native Americans, particularly tribal elder, activist and banker Elouise Cobell, to receive the charter for the holding company for Native American Bank. The result? In 2001, 20 tribal nations and Alaska Native Corporations started Native American Bank to provide access to financial services and opportunities for individuals and communities in Indian country. Today, that includes 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States, as well as Asian Pacific Islanders in Hawaii.

Individual tribes operate as sovereign nations, much like states do, so it can be a challenge to navigate the laws and codes of each one. To meet this challenge, $104 million-asset Native American Bank enlists the community’s help, including a tribe’s leaders and economic development corporation, as well as legal representation well-versed in tribal laws.

All the hard work is paying off.

A lending hand
Native American Bank has completed or is in the process of completing projects in about 20 states. “We do primarily commercial lending in an effort to bring additional economic opportunity to reservations,” Ogaard says.

In 2017, the bank had nearly $150 million in its loan pipeline throughout Indian country. On average, Ogaard says a commercial project may run between $4 million and $6 million. Projects include non-gaming hospitality projects (such as hotels), convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters and more. These commercial projects not only provide a good source of revenue for a tribe but also help create jobs and sustain existing jobs in the community.

From left: Former Native American Bank sales and marketing director Mika Leonard; Holly Kinney, executive director of Tesoro Cultural Center; and Thomas Ogaard, president and CEO of Native American Bank, at Tesoro Cultural Center.

Some of these projects couldn’t get funding elsewhere. For example, a tribe in rural Alaska, where snowmobile, four-wheeler and small-plane commuting is common, operated a small general store in need of expansion. This would allow it to store items in greater quantities, resulting in better prices for community members. “We stepped in and provided the financing,” Ogaard says.

Native American Bank worked with a tribe in northern Minnesota that has started to build a grocery store in an area that’s considered to be a “food desert.” Currently, the nearest grocery store is some 30 miles away. Tribes are also acquiring businesses off the reservation to further diversify their revenue streams, Ogaard says. Along with helping a tribe assess if a project makes economic sense and is sustainable, Native American Bank will serve as a sounding board for tribes that want to explore the option of engaging in a business far away from the reservation. “We see that now with more frequency,” he says.

“We’re working with tribes in conjunction with consortiums that are looking at energy—either solar or wind—and how does that come to fruition,” Ogaard says. “We’re looking at doing some of the infrastructure costs with that. And those tribes that are coming together will share in the revenue sources from that. It’s a different context for our type of banking.”

What matters most is that tribes invest in businesses that can make money. “At the end of the day, what they want is to bring the revenue back to the tribe to help support the programs they have for tribal members,” says Ogaard. “That’s any number of things, from health and wellness to education and all sorts of other things.”

Creating partnerships
Housing is another key area of activity for Native American Bank. On rural reservations, there’s a big need for housing. You might find several families living in one 1,200-square-foot house.

These projects may also involve educating a local bank. For example, the Oglala Sioux Lakota Housing project in South Dakota included a $6 million HUD Title VI loan to build 45 moderate-income units, each with a two-acre lot. “We partner with [our customers’] banks in getting deals done,” Ogaard says. He expects these housing projects will increase, as will partnerships with other banks on projects in the $10 million to $20 million range.

“Native American Bank is really a partnership and relationship-building bank, not only with tribes and tribal entities and tribal individuals throughout Indian country, but with other financial institutions as well,” Ogaard says. “It just helps us to leverage our ability to lend. Rather than do a few projects of a particular size, we can do a number of projects and then spread the wealth.

Teaching financial literacy

Denver-based Native American Bank has a Browning, Mont., retail branch and a Box Elder, Mont., loan production office. The bank recently purchased another Denver building for its future headquarters and an additional branch location.

In 2017, Native American Bank partnered with EverFi to provide online financial literacy education to its customers across the U.S. People can go on the bank’s website to view three- to seven-minute tutorials on everything from opening a checking account to getting a car loan.

“Many tribal communities are cash-based societies,” says Native American Bank president and CEO Thomas Ogaard. “We see it from our location in Browning.”

He’s talking about individuals who visit the bank every two weeks to cash their entire paycheck—and then keep their cash in their pocket.

“That’s how they pay their bills,” he says. “We have the website, we have online banking, we have a mobile app on your phone.

“There’s a need to help tribal members and tribal communities understand how to use current technology and trust in it, and that takes time.”

Jolene Johnson is a writer in Minnesota.