Kristi Coker-Bias

Honoring Nations: Kristi Coker-Bias and Allen Pemberton: The Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation and the Red Lake Walleye Recovery Program (Q&A)

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Honoring Nations symposium presenters Kristi Coker-Bias and Allen Pemberton field questions from the audience about the Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation and the Red Lake Walleye Recovery Program.

Resource Type

Coker-Bias, Kristi and Allen Pemberton. "The Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation and the Red Lake Walleye Recovery Program (Q&A)." Harvard Project on American Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation.

Alfreda Mitre:

"The next question is from Ben Nuvamsa, chairman from the Hopi Tribe."

Ben Nuvamsa:

"Thank you. I just wanted to thank you for all the good work that you're doing out there for Indian Country, all of you. I just have a question for Kristi Coker on your program. Most of our reservations are isolated out there and we typically have a difficult time attracting businesses, or at least the financial, the banks and so on, out on our reservations. My question to you is, your population, was that a deterrent in trying to get the banks or that kind of financial [institution]? Maybe you took the matter into your own hands, but it seems like that's something that may be a challenge for most of us. And how did you overcome that obstacle? Because we are faced with that -- we would like to have some banking institution out there, but it's because of our isolation it's often difficult for us to do that. By the way, we're Hopi, we may be short but we walk tall."

Kristi Coker:

"Well, we did take matters into our own hands. In 1994, we bought a struggling bank, a national bank, the tribe did. And why we started the Community Development Corporation in 2003 is that traditional financing, traditional financial institutions, just weren't the answer for the Native American community. It was a great enterprise for the tribe and it's a great financial institution, but so many people just needed the handholding and just were leery of banks still. And so even though we have our own bank there, there was a need for a non-traditional, flexible, self-regulated financial institution that is geared toward your mission, geared toward your market.

There's a lot you can do with a CDFI [Community Development Financial Institution]. You can do a credit union, and a credit union is the answer for a lot of Native communities. Oweesta even has some upcoming training. I'm on the Oweesta board, if you couldn't tell. But Oweesta has some upcoming training on ‘does your native community need a credit union?' And it's actually online and over the phone and so that might be something you want to get involved with. But a CDFI can do a lot, as you see. We're doing financial education, we're doing credit counseling, we're doing commercial lending, micro loans, larger loans. So we're doing loans from $2,000 up to $750,000. So we have a wide range of loans.

And we have had a tremendous amount of interest from private foundations, from the large national banks. They don't understand how to do lending in Indian Country and a lot of them, through the Community Reinvestment Act, have incentives to do this type of work. So one of the things they can do is they can fund CDFIs in Indian Country to do this work for them. If they're not interested in doing that, you could at least engage the local institutions in financial education as trainers and curriculum they may have.

I think what's so neat about the CDFI -- and the Treasury Department has been an amazing department, as far as a partnership with tribes. They have set up very comprehensive, coordinated programs and actually give you the training and technical assistance along with the money. And one of the things about being a CDFI, for those of you that don't know, our incentive, one of our incentives was for every non-federal dollar you can raise, you get that matched dollar for dollar from the Treasury. So a lot of my time goes to fundraising efforts and those sorts of things.

But I think what's so neat is the flexibility of it. It's regulated by the tribe, by the board of directors of your community development financial institution, and that it meets the needs of your people. You design it around your people. It looks many different ways. Some CDFIs are doing housing, some CDFIs are just doing IDAs [Individual Development Account] or just micro loans. You gear it toward your mission and your market, which is kind of driven by a study. It all kind of starts with a market study to determine what the needs are. Is there a housing need? Is there a business loan need? Do we have a gap?

Another thing that we're doing is even helping with gap financing for banks. A lot of the times even existing businesses that have assets, that have collateral, that have financial records, and those types of things, most of the time you can only get 80 percent financing at a bank and they just don't have 20 percent cash to inject at that time. So we're able to come in and it would actually be a bankable project through a bank and we're actually able to come and do the 20 percent.

So I think there's lots of creative things you can do and lots of opportunities and I would recommend exploring developing your private sector."


"Next question is from JoAnn Chase."

JoAnn Chase:

"I have a question for Red Lake. Obviously, so many of the stories that we have heard, they're very moving components to how initiatives and programs came to be. And one of the most moving ones for me, during my involvement with this program, was the fact that your own fishermen chose, they voted actually to vote themselves out of a job in economic situations which were absolutely dire. And so that told me that you obviously spent some significant time with your own community and working with the community. I'm wondering if you might just talk just a little bit more about what went into engaging folks, to the point that they would take a very deeply sacrificial decision in order to replenish the lake, and some of the aspects of the dialogue or the efforts that you, as a program, had to undertake in order to get the community to really buy and support and ultimately make very deeply sacrificial decisions."

Allen Pemberton:

"I wasn't actually at the meeting, but there was a lot of talk. Some people didn't want to do it, but I think the majority of the people seen that they just weren't getting the catches that they were in years past, and if they didn't do something now it would never come back.

I think looking at the records and some of the stuff that happened years before -- like about six years earlier we had a really big year class of female walleyes. And, as we all know, we have to have females to keep moving in this life. And there was -- the fishery guys that I talked to, they did the spawn nets every year and there was like -- they'd get like 100 males in the net and no female. And what happened was that -- If they would have just stopped like five years before, which is pretty hard for them to do because they were really catching the walleyes that year, and if they would have just stopped then, knowing what they know now, maybe we wouldn't have to quit for ten years [because] there was that nucleus of fish out there at that time, but they got hit pretty hard by the nets and stuff. And I think a lot of the people back home now, they're worried about -- that's why they told us to take a cautious look at what we do from now on. We've go to protect that resource.

One of the things the old people, the chiefs, and people called it, that lake was our freezer. As long as you have fish in there we're never going to starve. There are so many things that move to these days. Like my grandpa, he told me, there's another -- I have a hard time talking about him because I loved him. He told me, 'There's another lake under this lake.' That was one of the kind of -- the fish will come back, there's another lake under here. And a lot of people to this day still think that there is one there, but I don't know. It's kind of hard to -- it's in my heart to take care of our land. The fishermen are -- right now, they're looking at a different way of taking fish because a lot this, what happened was -- they all know it. All of them were older guys and now there's ten years of people, almost a generation of people, that didn't go out into the lake and do any fishing.

So the lake, our lake is -- I always remember what Pat Brown said, our fishery biologist, when he first came to Red Lake just before they started the recovery. He came from Wisconsin (another Packer fan), but he says to me, he said, ‘Man, I walked up to...I got to DNR [Department of Natural Resources] and I looked out on that lake and said, ‘Oh, man, how am I ever going to bring this thing back? I can't even see the other side of the lake. It's just monstrous.'' It's the sixth largest fresh water lake in the United States. He just said, ‘Oh, man, are we ever going to be able to bring it back?' It was a big initiative. And actually, the DNR took a big step forward in that. And really, Dave Connors, and there's a lot of people to thank that were non-members, but they were hired by the tribe to help us bring this lake back and it's back bigger than it ever was. The numbers show that there's more fish in our lake than there ever was.

And I think one of the things that happened throughout -- when I first got on the council we went to a game one time. I always like to tell this story. Red Lake was playing in Grand Forks, which is about 90 miles away. Basketball -- it's a big thing on our reservation. So everybody went. And we were coming home, and my wife -- we were riding down the road between Red Lake and Redbye coming home -- and I said, ‘Man, what is that on that truck?' We seen these red lights coming and I said, ‘What is that?' It's almost covering the road. And we got closer and there was a plane, there was a plane on the back of this truck. These non-members came and they flew up and down Redby, which is the district I live in and represent, and they landed on the lake and started fishing, which is -- the fishing, you can come buy a permit on our reservation to fish the small lake but the big lake is only for [band] members; only members fish that lake. So we guard that with our lives. So people are calling the cops. I suppose these guys thought, ‘Oh, these Indian tribes they don't have no game wardens. They ain't going to care if we go fish on their lake.' They knew where they were. And what they did was they landed and started fishing. And game wardens went out and arrested them, took their plane away.

They were coming down -- Then when I come home, it was like my first year on the council and we were getting bombarded, the council was, with ‘What are you going to do with this?' Because we really can' our laws -- it's one of the things we've been working on now -- that we can't do anything to non-members. If a non-member comes [and] punches me, we can't take him to court. The federal government would probably slap his hand and, ‘Go ahead. Go ahead and land on the lake some more if you want. It's only Indians that live down there.' But one of the things that I said at that time, I said, 'We should just keep that plane because there's going to be more people coming, thinking that they can trespass on our land.' But we said, ‘Well, we'll be good neighbors and give it back to them.' Like we've been catching heck over that for the last -- I think at the Honoring Nations deal I was telling them, I said, ‘If we would have kept that plane I could have flew out here to Sacramento. I would have been a pilot by now.' One of the things that happened after that, they did get fined a lot. It wasn't the best plane in the world. But you have to, as Indian people, you have to stand up for your rights.

We own that land in Red Lake. It's all owned in common. It's a closed reservation. We own all the land there. We have hunting and fishing rights and we never ceded our lands to the federal government. I'll just let you know that they had a game warden that was for the State of Minnesota, and it seemed like we have a pretty good relationship with them now, but this guy kind of threw like a wrench in it last spring. They didn't care about our lake before, but now that the walleyes are back, ‘Okay,' they said, ‘All right, Red Lake, you don't own that lake. You own the land under the lake.' Uh, okay? Well, they were citing some kind of court case in Montana, but those people in Montana they allotted their land. So it was more of a waterways issue. We talked about it and we said, ‘Well, Red Lake's totally different than that tribe. We own our land. And they said, ‘Well, I'm going to bring a bunch of people over there and we're going to fish on your lake.' I'll tell you, a lot of people at home said, ‘Well, bring it on.' There's going to be -- we're going to fight for our land again. If it comes to that, that's what's going to happen. But it never did. But just that part of it, we have to always be on our toes as Indian people because there's always somebody out there that wants our land. They put us on land that they didn't think anybody wanted. But it's our land and we've got to take care of it.

This guy -- I had an old man call me one time, he was an older fellow, a white gentleman and he said -- I got this call at my office --and he said, ‘Yeah, you know, I don't like that that you guys took this boat away from this guy 'cause he went across the line and then you guys had machine guns in there. The game wardens had machine guns.' And I said, ‘Well, they weren't machine guns. They were issued arms for their work. You guys were a mile onto our land. You knew where the -- we put GPS -- they had GPS ratings with the state and all this stuff. And they knew where they were at, but yet they came on to Red Lake to fish. So our game wardens had time to go all the way to Red Lake, which is about 40 miles away from the Upper Red Lake, get their boat, come back and them guys were still fishing on our side of the lake.' And this old guy tells me, he says, ‘Oh, I don't think -- then that plane. You guys kept that plane.' I said, ‘Well, we didn't keep the plane. We gave the plane back.' I said, ‘I just want to say something to you.' I said -- I was trying to do it in kind of laymen's terms and be nice to him too, but I said, ‘If you owned 100 acres and you had four or five really nice bucks on your land and I knew about it. And just before deer season I came over and shot all four of those deer...' I said, ‘How would you like it?' ‘Well, I wouldn't like it,' he said. ‘Well,' I said, ‘it's the same thing here.' I said, ‘We own this land. It's not owned by the state. It's not owned by the government. It's owned by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa.' I said, ‘We all own it in common.' He said, ‘Well, I kind of understand now.' I said, ‘But one of the things that I think a lot of people don't understand is that they think that no matter what it's everybody's land, but it's not.' That's one of the things that's unique about Red Lake. And like I said, the chiefs for -- they had some real good insight to keep that land for us. And we have to -- we, as a council and people, have to protect that [because] that's our land.

I think one of the things I forgot to say earlier was that the tribe recently served notice to the Secretary of the Interior that they will no longer abide by the federal regulations governing the fishery. We are going forward and determine our own quotas. Every year it'll change depending on how many fish we have in the lake. It'll no longer be -- we won't have to go see Big Brother to say, ‘Hey, is it all right to go and take some of our own fish? Can you guys sign off on this?' I think one of the things I always laugh about, at the DNR when we went Self-Governance, they kept one person there to sign off on things. The guy didn't, the guy really didn't like what I said to him, but I always told him, ‘Oh, yeah, we better get our Indian agent in here so we can make sure that we're doing things the right way.' He didn't like that. That's about all I've got to say. Thanks."

Alfreda Mitre:

"Thanks, Al. One of the recurring themes that you're going to see throughout the symposium here is -- that's going to make this symposium a little bit different is -- the love of the land. We are who we are because of the land. The only thing American about America is us. Everything else was imported into this country and I think that's important. You can see, and you'll probably see throughout the symposium, the love for the land inspires the programs that are put forth to Honoring Nations. No one can tell our story better than we can. When westerners do something in their neighborhood that they don't like, they can move to another city, they can move to another town, they can move to another neighborhood. We are truly connected to the land and therefore no one could love the land or protect it better than we can. So that's going to be a recurring theme, and I want to again thank you all."

Honoring Nations: Kristi Coker-Bias: The Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Former Executive Director Kristi Coker-Bias provides on overview of the Citizen Potowatomi Community Development Corporation and discusses how it is working to cultivate private sector development in her community, which she says is essential to Native nations' efforts to develop sustainable economies.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Coker-Bias, Kristi. "The Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation.

Alfreda Mitre:

"Our next panelist is Kristi Coker. She is the Executive Director of the Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation, also a 2006 honoree."

Kristi Coker-Bias:

"All right. Well, thank you. Thank you for having me today. And I'm really excited to be here and excited to talk about what we're doing at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in regards to nation building, in my line of work, institution building with the Community Development Corporation, which has been really important to the economy of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation has a rich entrepreneurial history and the Community Development Corporation, which we formed in 2003, is the embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit of the Potawatomi people. We have a focus on Native American entrepreneurs, we're focused on building a stronger tribal community, and we're focused on continuous learning for our Native-owned businesses and the increase of those businesses as far as their capacity and their capabilities to grow and expand their business, retain jobs in the tribal community, and expand jobs, and create new jobs. We're a really vital and critical institution as a building block and an economic development tool for the Potawatomi Nation.

Our focus is on private sector growth, which is an extremely important model that, I feel like, many tribal nations are ignoring. And I think that's a shame to not focus on private sector growth and development. When we think of Native American economic development in the Potawatomi Nation, it's not just about building tribal enterprises and growing new tribal businesses. It's about sustainable businesses development. And it's definitely not about creating job programs at tribes, because we all know that doesn't work.

One of the things we found out, to tell you a little bit -- you could read a little bit about what we do, but our main focus -- we're a Community Development Financial Institution [CDFI], which is a certification we received from the U.S. Department of Treasury. We focus on commercial lending to Potawatomis nationwide and all Native Americans in the State of Oklahoma. And the reason we were doing that, honestly, there was a market need and demand there. No other tribe was fitting that need in Oklahoma. And with 39 tribes, there was definitely [a lot] of aspiring entrepreneurs and great Native-owned businesses ripe for expansion, if they just had some access to capital. And as you all know, banks probably aren't fitting [those] needs in your community just like they were fitting the needs in our community.

So with a CDFI, we're able to come in -- receiving private-sector financing from foundations, from federal funding, from tribal funding, from a variety of sources -- and provide commercial loans. We provide consumer loans to the employees of the nation and we provide business-development services. And that's [a] lot of the way to tell the difference -- people ask, 'How is a CDFI different from a bank? You're a financial institution, how do you differ from a bank?' Well, we do lots of handholding and lots of one-on-one technical assistance. We're able to really provide the nurturing that small businesses need. And we have a goal of helping to create Native-owned business owners who are bankable. We want to teach them to be bankable. So that next time, as their business grows, hopefully they outgrow the need for the CDFI and they grow to need the bank, and that we can make them financially literate and business savvy.

So one of the things we found out when [we] started the Community Development Corporation -- if you would have asked me what your mission is and kind of what you're doing -- I would have told you we do loans and we provide business development assistance. And very quickly into it, I found out we have a drastic need for financial education. Not that I didn't know that, but I guess I just thought these business owners were going to come ready and prepared. And just as the rest of the citizens of the United States, there's a major credit crisis and a real need for financial education. There was not any one at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation doing any kind of financial education, there was no one doing any kind of credit counseling, and so that was one of the main barriers. They didn't have the credit worthiness to go to the bank and sometimes they didn't have the credit worthiness to even utilize our CDFI. So we had to step in, because we don't want to just say, 'Well, your credit's bad. Good luck. We can't help you.' So we created comprehensive financial education classes in partnership with First Nations Development [Institute] and in partnership with First Nations Oweesta [Corporation]. They have a great 'Building Native Communities' curriculum.

So we were able to utilize that program and then really quick we got – and we found out we're big about partnerships. We don't want to reinvent the wheel and we want to keep a very small staff and be flexible and nimble at the Potawatomi Nation. That's kind of our mantra, for those of you that know our chairman. And we decided credit counseling services, consumer credit counseling, they're all over. So we created a partnership with Consumer Credit Counseling of Central Oklahoma, that was in Oklahoma City, and got some grant funding, and now we have a credit counselor in our office three days a week providing services, one-on-one individualized credit counseling, budgeting  -- you name it -- to Native Americans throughout the state. And we also are doing something we call Lunch and Learn, which are small, one-hour financial education credit counseling type educational opportunities for Native Americans.

One of the things we found out and a big part of our growing mission is asset building, wealth creation. More than ever, our people are needing more than a paycheck to get to where they're wanting to go to achieve financial security. They need the capacity to acquire assets and to maintain those assets. And so we feel like, and my board of directors feels like, that's the real pathway to self-sufficiency. And ultimately that's the goal: self-sufficient tribal members, self-sufficient Native Americans. And so we're really excited to be meeting those needs.

Amy [Besaw Medford] asked me to talk a little bit about what's been going on since the 2006 Honoring Nations Honoree awardees. And we've expanded financial education. We're doing those now twice a month. We're doing some specific to casino employees, helping them. So we offer our service to Native Americans, and then we also offer it to employees of the Potawatomi Nation. Being the largest employer in the county it's pretty critical that we provide those services. We also started an IDA, which is an Individual Development Account program, a match savings program. We got that kicked off in October of 2006. And in two weeks, we'll be graduating our first class; we have 23 graduates. And it's a matched savings program; for every dollar they save, we match that 2 to 1. And we wanted to stay with our mission, so the two things they could save for was to build their credit and repair their credit, and the other side was business development, and we're really excited to do that. I think we, along with Umatilla, are the first ones to use credit repair and credit building as an opportunity for an IDA. It's been really great and we're really excited about that.

Also, we have a new partnership with [the] Federal Highway [Administration] and the Department of Interior. We received a contract to have a National Native American Business Opportunity Workforce Development Center, which -- what that means, in that long title, is that I help Native American and Alaska Native federal highway contractors get jobs. I help them learn how to bid properly. As a disadvantaged business enterprise, we're helping them land those contracts and even market to the prime contractors, the big large prime contractors. So we're doing that on a nationwide basis in Alaska, Washington and in Oklahoma right now. And that's a pilot program, and we've had great support from the Office of Energy and Economic Development, and can't say enough about their great things.

And then something that happened exciting yesterday, and I was frantically emailing and faxing around is, we became the first BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs]-certified lender as a CDFI. In the past, you had to be a traditional financial institution to utilize the program. And some legislation came out last year allowing certified -- U.S. Department of Treasury certified -- CDFIs to utilize this program. And so we've been very excited about the opportunity, obviously, to get our loans guaranteed and our loan insurance, because we actually have a lower loan loss than banks, than even our own tribally owned bank, which we're very, very proud of, and I like to talk about at length. But [I] can't say enough great things about that, and we're thrilled with that and thrilled for the outreach from the Office of Energy and Economic Development. It's exciting.

Another thing and I think something that's really exciting is, Honoring Nations talks about being a family and talks about the sharing in all of that, and some of the most rewarding professional growth I've received, probably in the last year, has been my experience sharing, kind of what we're doing and where we're going, and how to help others get there. And we've done that. We've done that with the Salt River [Pima-Maricopa Indian Community] in Arizona, we've done that with the Colville tribe, we've done that with three or four tribes in Oklahoma. And actually now in Oklahoma, we've set up an Oklahoma Native Assets Coalition, which right now is made up of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Chickasaw Nation; I think the Osage Nation is involved, and the Muscogee Creek. So obviously we are thrilled to death about that. There hasn't been a lot of intertribal councils and meetings. And we haven't worked together as great as maybe tribes in Arizona have worked together, and New Mexico, and some of those great coalitions. We haven't had that in the past.

And so just being able to come together and looking at asset building, looking at private sector economic development growth, looking at building entrepreneurs, letting our youth know that, 'Hey, you could own a business, too! You don't just have to work for the man.' So we're really excited about that and excited about where we're going. I think that's all I have. Thanks."