Published November 1, 2000 | November 2000 issue
On Sept. 27, 1999, more than 250 housing and economic development practitioners gathered at the Walking the Native Path: Seeking Solutions Through Economic Development and Housing Opportunities conference at the Grand Casino Mille Lacs Hotel and Convention Center in Onamia, Minn. Located on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, the conference center was the site for three days of sessions that provided participants with the opportunity to increase their knowledge of lending and investing issues and opportunities on tribal lands.
Community Affairs, a sponsoring partner of the conference, recognizes that such meetings are often informative and enjoyable but are not ends in themselves. A conference is not truly successful unless its sessions lead participants to action. In this article, we will discuss the gains that have resulted from the Walking the Native Path conference, the topics that were discussed in conference sessions and the next steps for maintaining the meeting's momentum.
In April of this year, we sent an evaluation survey to attendees, soliciting opinions on the conference's usefulness. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. More than 75 percent of the 52 participants who responded to the survey said they learned something from the conference that will enable them to solve a particular problem or concern that their tribe, bank or agency is currently facing. Impressively, 70 percent of the respondents have formed or anticipate forming a partnership with another entity in the near future to achieve a specific housing or economic development objective. These respondents credited the conference with providing the information or contacts that made such relationships possible.
Examples of respondents' new partnerships include a banker who has started working with two reservations in his bank's lending area and another banker whose institution plans to underwrite mortgage loans on a reservation in its lending area. A tribal housing official has formed a partnership with a local bank and tribal officials from two other reservations are pursuing low-income housing tax-credit projects. Finally, a community development venture capital firm is now working with many more Indian clients, having gained an understanding of Indian Country lending and investing issues at the conference.
Kicking off the conference on Sept. 27, Patrick Borunda, former executive director of First Nations Oweesta Corporation, spoke on the relationship between economic development and housing. In his remarks, Borunda expressed a concern that on some reservations affordable housing has suffered due to an emphasis on small business lending, while on other reservations the situation is reversed. He stressed that reservation-based community development practitioners must learn to balance the short-term and long-term needs of reservation residents for both housing and business development.
Borunda emphasized the need for lenders' products to conform to the realities of doing business on reservations. He also asserted that reservation economies will continue to suffer unless reservation-based practitioners and private-sector lenders maintain a dialogue about ways to manage the integration of housing and small business creation.
The next day, Marge Anderson, former chief executive officer of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, spoke about the economic struggles and achievements of the tribe, which has sought private-sector investment and leveraged its gaming profits in pursuit of a more diversified economy.
Conference workshops were split into two concurrent tracks: housing and economic development. The housing sessions focused on financial literacy and the latest housing initiatives under way in Indian Country. The economic development sessions addressed operational and technical aspects of microenterprise lending organizations and provided an overview of emerging private-sector business opportunities on reservations.
On the final day of the conference, JoAnne Lewellen, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Affairs officer, challenged attendees to write down three steps they would take individually to transform what they learned at the conference into an increase in housing and small business lending activity on reservations. We in the Community Affairs section accepted our officer's challenge and began planning our next steps.
In survey responses and other contacts, conference attendees indicated that they wished to continue meeting to study and work on reservation community development issues. In response, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, in partnership with other organizations, is sponsoring a series of sovereign lending workshops to present information and explore ways of removing barriers to reservation-based lending and investing.
Earlier this fall, we inaugurated the workshop series in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. The goal of the workshops is to engage the partners in Indian Country, encourage them to search for appropriate solutions to development problems and assist them in setting priorities and action plans.
Whether or not you participated in the conference, we encourage you and all who are interested in Indian Country to join us as we continue "walking the Native path"the path to full participation by Indian Country residents in this country's economic life.
Sponsoring partners made conference a reality
Successful economic development depends on the participation of many organizations. Successful economic development conferences are no different. Following is a list of the sponsoring partners of the September 1999 Walking the Native Path conference.
American Indian Housing & Community Development