Our Programs: Achieving Native Financial Empowerment

Achieving Native Financial Empowerment

First Nations Development Institute and its independent subsidiary, First Nations Oweesta Corporation (a community development financial institution), work in partnership with Native American tribes and communities throughout the U.S. to assist them in designing and administering financial and investor education programs. Our projects range from helping individuals and families understand the basics of financial management – opening and maintaining a bank account and using credit wisely – to helping individuals understand financial markets and a variety of financial instruments for borrowing and saving.

Learning how to manage finances ensures that Native people will be more likely to save and invest.  Our programs result in increased investment levels and economic growth in Native communities.

First Nations Development Institute uses the Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families curriculum, which was originally developed by First Nations Development Institute and the Fannie Mae Foundation. For more information about this publication, visit our Knowledge Center.

First Nations Development Institute also coordinates the InvestNative online investor education project (more information can be found at www.investnative.org.)

Current Projects

My Green Campaign 

First Nations created the My Green campaign and website in response to the demand to provide financial education to the growing number of Native youth who are receiving a large lump sum of money as part of their Minor’s Trust (Big Money) payout.

The campaign website went live on April 17, 2013 and is equipped with a variety of interactive money tools designed to help Native youth make the most of out of their per capita payments. Visit www.mybigmoney.org to try out the My Big Money online game, the different money tools and visit the Ask Mo financial advice column to get answers to your most pressing questions regarding financial planning.

The campaign is led by four Native youth, Denessa, Jordan, Dakota, and Hunter, who share their stories and lessons learned about their Minor’s Trust, or “Big Money.”

To learn more about the My Green campaign, signup for email alerts at www.mybigmoney.org. Please also like the My Green Facebook page and My Green Twitter account!

My Green FAQ

Q: What does Big Money stand for?

A: Big Money is a slang term for a large lump sum Minor's Trust payout.

Q: What are Minor’s Trust Payouts?

A: When tribes generate revenue from tribal enterprises or leases they have the discretion to issue per capita (or monetary) payments to tribal citizens. Many tribes that make per capita payments hold these payments for minors in a trust until they reach a specified age. At the specified age the minor receives the Minor’s Trust Payout.

Q: Who Receives Minor’s Trust Payouts and Per Capita Payments?

A: As sovereign nations, tribes have the discretion to decide how and when to distribute per capita payments and Minor’s Trust payouts to their citizens. Some tribes place conditions on Minor’s Trust payouts such as requiring minors to earn a high school diploma or GED before they can receive their Minor’s Trust payout.

Many tribes do not issue per capita payments or Minors Trust payouts. Some have decided against the payments. Others do not generate enough income to issue payments at all.

Q: Where can I learn more about Minor’s Trust Payouts and Per Capita Payments?

A: In addition to the My Green website First Nations has many resources available in our Knowledge Center as well as at our InvestNative website.

Q: Where can I learn more about Financial Education in Native Communities?

A: At www.mybigmoney.org of course! But the program section of First Nations’ website outlines some of the innovative projects we are undertaking in Native communities. Additionally we have many resources available in our Knowledge Center dealing with financial education.

Fighting Fraud 101 Pamphlet

Financial fraud has been far too common in Native American communities, and it is a growing problem with the recent increase in tribal lawsuit settlement payments. First Nations Development Institute has partnered with the FINRA Investor Education Foundation to produce a pamphlet that can help people protect themselves from common financial fraud techniques.

Over the past five years more than $1 billion in tribal trust settlements have been reached, including the Keepseagle and Cobell. class-action legal settlements. Many of these have resulted in payments to individual tribal members, which makes them prime targets for fraudsters who follow a simple strategy: Follow the money. The FINRA Investor Education Foundation is collaborating with First Nations to help reach the recipients of these trust fund settlements, as well as other tribal members who may be targeted for their wealth.

The pamphlet, titled “Fighting Fraud 101: Smart Tips for Investors,” is designed to appeal to individuals, members of tribal investment committees, and retirees. It lists some common fraud tactics, teaches several techniques to avoid being taken advantage of, and how to report suspicious behavior.

The pamphlet can be viewed in the Knowledge Center of the First Nations website.  To order printed copies of the pamphlet, pleasecontact info@firstnations.org.

Note: Many of our publications were produced with the support of grant funding that requires us to collect basic information for reporting purposes.  This requires users to create an account to download many publications in the Knowledge Center.

Combating Illegal Tax-Refund Scheme


The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a federal agency that helps consumer finance markets work by making rules more effective, by consistently and fairly enforcing those rules, and by empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives. First Nations Development Institute shared our mystery shopper reports of improper tax preparation practices (documented in the Tax Time Deception  project section) with key staff at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), prompting the CFPB to launch an investigation.  The CFPB has the ability to subpoena records from financial firms if they suspect a pattern of potentially illegal activity.

The CFPB announced that, together with the Navajo Nation, it is taking action against S/W Tax Loans, Inc., a company that they claim operated an illegal tax-refund scheme. The scheme was based on tax-preparation franchises steering low-income consumers, including many citizens of the Navajo Nation, toward high-cost, refund-anticipation loans.  A proposed order, if approved by the court, would result in roughly $438,000 in total consumer redress and require the defendants to pay $438,000 in civil penalties for their unfair, deceptive and abusive practices.

The complaint alleges that the tax firm failed to disclose to more than 1,500 consumers that their tax refunds had been received from the IRS and were already being processed by the company. Instead, when these consumers inquired about the status of their refund, they persuaded the consumers to take out a second or third refund-anticipation loan.  As a result, many consumers were led to pay a substantial finance charge for an unnecessary high-interest loan.

Dr. Per Cap’s 2015 Financial Literacy All Stars

First Nations Development Institute is proud to partner with Dr. Per Cap during Financial Literacy Month to highlight the great work of some financial literacy heroes. Dr. Per Cap, as usual, provides his insight on all things related to Native American financial education.  

Dr. Per Cap’s Financial Literacy 2015 All-Star Picks

April is national Financial Literacy Month, so let’s celebrate by recognizing a few outstanding individuals who are working hard to expand financial education efforts throughout Indian Country.  In keeping with what has become an annual tradition each week in April, I will highlight the accomplishments of one totally awesome person who embodies the spirit of Native financial empowerment through selfless dedication, action over words, and an inclusive community vision. We’ve got five weeks in April this year, so here’s a bonus fifth All Star!

Oklahoma Asset-Building: Promoting Economic Security for Life

First Nations Development Institute received a grant from the Ford Foundation to launch the "Building Economic Security for Life" project. The purpose of the initiative is to promote an asset-building agenda at the state and local levels that will provide income and program strategies to ensure family economic security. First Nations has partnered with Oklahoma Native Asset Coalition and Oklahoma Policy Institute to promote a research agenda that builds on the momentum of family asset-building strategies.


Ask Dr. Per Cap

Ask Dr. Per Cap is a financial advice column to help you travel the winding road toward financial independence.

The column was originally designed for tribal citizens who receive per capita payments. About 20 percent of the Native American population in the United States receives these payments, primarily from gaming revenues and dividends from natural resources leases.

Dr. Per Cap draws upon his experiences – some good, some bad – to help you learn skills, tricks and strategies to take control of your financial future.

Click here for more information.

Model Tribal Code

First Nations Development Institute has produced a model tribal consumer protection code. With funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, First Nations worked with staff at DNA People’s Legal Services, Inc. to produce a model tribal code that can be adopted to regulate a variety of activities on reservations. The code provides a legal framework for tribes to regulate economic transactions on their reservations, including a range of credit products such as payday loans. The model tribal code also includes the following chapters:

Chapter 1 – Fair Debt Collection Practice
Chapter 2 – Privacy Protection
Chapter 3 – Motor Vehicle Warranty
Chapter 4 – Rental Purchase Agreement
Chapter 5 – Repossession of Personal Property
Chapter 6 – Repossession of Manufactured Homes
Chapter 7 – Motor Vehicle Deficiency Charges
Chapter 8 – False Advertising
Chapter 9 – Pawn Transactions/Pawn Brokers
Chapter 10 – Pyramid or Multilevel Sales

For more information about the model tribal code, please email Sarah Dewees. To download the Model Tribal Consumer Protecttion Code, visit our Knowledge Center.

Bank Payday Lending: A Debt-Trap Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

First Nations Development Institute has joined a national effort to actively oppose “bank payday lending” by established banks and financial institutions. First Nations believes this new practice by large, respected companies will undermine the hard-fought gains made in Native American and military communities and others to curb predatory lending practices that particularly prey on low-income people.

According to Diane Standaert of the Center for Responsible Lending, five large banks are now making unaffordable, high-cost payday loans, typically calling them “direct deposit advances” or “checking account advances."  The banks are Wells Fargo, Regions, US Bank, Guaranty Bank, and Fifth Third.  She said that with their high fees and a single balloon-payment taken out of a customer’s next direct deposit, these loans create the same debt trap as expensive payday loans made from strip-mall storefront lenders.  They may also trigger additional charges such as overdraft fees, and can contribute to the increased likelihood of bankruptcy, late credit card and bill payments, delayed medical care, and even loss of basic banking privileges because of repeated overdrafts.

federal reserveFirst Nations has joined the Center for Responsible Lending and a wide range of 250 national, state and local organizations – including consumer advocates, civil rights organizations, faith-based groups and social service agencies – to oppose the practice.  They are asking U.S. bank regulators in Washington, D.C., including the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to take immediate action to stop banks from making such loans.

"The very structure of a bank payday loan makes it likely to trap customers in long-term debt even while the bank claims that the loans are meant for short-term use," noted Rebecca Borne, senior policy analyst at the center.

"We recognize the need for emergency credit," Director Richard Cordray of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said recently. "At the same time, it is important that these products actually help consumers, rather than harm them."

Combating predatory lending has long been part of the mission of First Nations because it has a tremendously negative impact on Native communities. It is devastating because it destroys the potential for asset building that is critically needed to bring economic security to Indian families and communities. First Nations’ research has shown that predatory lending is stripping money from low-income tribal citizens, especially those who are unbanked or underbanked.

You can support this effort by signing on as an individual, company or organization by contacting Diane at the Center for Responsible Lending at dianes@responsiblelending.org.  And you can support First Nations in its mission by giving generously online or by mail.

Tax Time Taxing Enough Without Deception

Tax time is taxing enough each year, so why pay more than you have to? First Nations Development Institute conducted research in early 2012 to see if Native American tax filers were being overcharged for tax-preparation services.

federal reserve

With support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, First Nations carried out a second year of secret shopping during the 2012 tax season to assess the quality of tax-preparation services and to discover if tax-preparation companies were steering people toward expensive products, such as refund anticipation loans or refund anticipation checks.

The most troublesome finding from this year’s research was that tax preparers manipulate clients into signing up for costly products like the Refund Anticipation Check (RAC) or Refund Anticipation Loan (RAL). Three of the 10 participants in our 2012 study were automatically signed up for the RAC option to receive their refunds, through questionable methods used by the preparers. Furthermore, seven of the 10 were offered a RAL loan and all 10 shoppers had some type of exposure to this expensive option through aggressive marketing. We found that some companies used a strategy of only accepting cash upfront for preparation fees, resulting in automatic enrollment of the client in a loan product if he or she did not have cash on hand. Finally, like the RAC disclosure forms, some preparers had our shoppers sign RAL consent forms without any consent.

One of our secret shopper’s experiences exemplified many of the concerning findings from our research. When she applied for a loan against her tax refund, a Social Security card and birth certificate were held as collateral for the loan until she returned to file her taxes with the company. When she later had her taxes prepared by the company, she attempted to pay her tax-preparation fees up front, which would have saved her almost $50. The company informed her that these fees were automatically rolled into her loan product and could not be removed to pay separately. The most significant issue, however, was that our participant was told that her refund came in almost two weeks after the IRS website said it was available. During this time period, our shopper, who had recently become unemployed, decided to take out another loan and the loan company enabled her to apply for another costly loan. This client later filed a complaint against the tax-preparation firm and received a payment from the firm for the fees associated with the third loan.

“We acknowledge that tax preparation firms can provide a valuable service,” said Sarah Dewees, Senior Director of First Nations’ Research, Policy and Asset-Building Programs in New Mexico, “but we expect them to act ethically and in the best interest of their customers. Our research suggests this is not always the case, and instead tax preparers are taking advantage of some Native American tax filers.” To read the report

Consumer Protection in Native Communities

In an effort to combat predatory lending and effect change at the federal, state and tribal policy level, First Nations has conducted two groundbreaking studies of predatory lending in Native American communities. The results show that predatory lending is a growing problem for Indians, who generally lack access to lending institutions for a variety of reasons. Based on our studies, First Nations has recommended that tribal nations act to combat predatory lending by:

  1. Providing financial and consumer education programs,
  2. Developing credit programs and borrowing opportunities that reduce the demand for predatory loans and help to repair credit, and
  3. Adopting interest rate caps and other consumer protection laws.

In 2008, First Nations Development Institute released "Borrowing Trouble: Predatory Lending in Native American Communities," a report detailing the predatory practices of lenders that target Native American communities. This landmark report is the result of a research study conducted by First Nations and funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. First Nations presented testimony on "Predatory Lending and its Impact on Native American Communities" at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on June 5, 2008. The testimony is available in our Knowledge Center.

To learn more about predatory lending, visit our knowledge center.

Building Trust: Consumer Protection in Native Communities

Building Trust: Consumer Protection in Native Communities is the first attempt to explore the complex legal dynamics related to tribal consumer protection legislation and to discuss what tribal nations are already doing to combat predatory lending through the use of tribal legislation. This report also highlights issues that tribal leaders should consider in developing legal and regulatory tools to combat predatory lending.

To learn more about Consumer Protection in Native Communities, visit our knowledge center

Guide to VITA Site Development in Native Communities

With funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, First Nations is conducting research on successful Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites serving reservation communities, and we have published a practitioner's guide and are providing assistance with VITA site implementation. VITA sites are critical to helping Native communities because they provide a safe alternative to high-fee tax preparation and predatory lending. Research is also being conducted to help policy makers looking to legally limit the impact of predatory lenders.

Access the Tax Time Savings for Native Communities: Ten Best Practices for Effective Native VITA Programs practitioner's guide here.

Note: Many of our publications were produced with the support of grant funding that requires us to collect basic information for reporting purposes.  This requires users to create an account to download many publications in the Knowledge Center.