Taking aim at the widespread poverty rates commonly found on reservations, the Federal Reserve bank in Minneapolis has launched a new center for the development of Indian Country.

The center will look at everything from land issues to education, personal loans to private businesses, acting as a clearinghouse for a variety of issues and projects. It will convene a roundtable of experts who will occasionally meet.

“This is in line with what we have been doing informally for a couple of decades,” said bank vice president Richard Todd.

The Center for Indian Country Development will be codirected by Sue Woodrow, a bank employee who has led other Indian Country initiatives for the Minneapolis Fed, and Patrice Kunesh, the former deputy undersecretary of rural development at the USDA. Kunesh is of Standing Rock Lakota descent.

The center’s priorities haven’t been chosen yet, said Todd, and will in part depend on direction from American Indian leaders and those already working on the economic development of Indian Country.

The problem of land ownership is a likely candidate, since tribal land often gets divided between heirs to the point that land parcels become so small they’re unworkable for development. It also makes it difficult for those who want to use reservation land as mortgage collateral.

Housing and education are also likely areas of focus for the center, he said.

Indian reservations across the country have had some of the worst poverty rates in the nation, with high unemployment and little economic opportunity. The casino industry that blossomed over the past two decades has helped only some of the bands, particularly those near larger cities or vacation destinations.

The center will carry on the work that the Minneapolis Fed has done in the past, said Todd. Some of those projects included assistance with the development of the Model Tribal Secured Transaction Act, a law that knocked down barriers American Indians faced when applying for loans from agencies outside the reservation.

The Fed over the years has also examined food deserts, access to banks, tax credits, tribal colleges and tribal land buyback programs, among other things.

The center’s mission statement will be left intentionally broad, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Narayana Kocherlakota said in a statement. The center will also partner with tribal organizations and others working on relevant projects.

The Minneapolis Fed covers an area from Montana and the Dakotas to Minnesota, northwestern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The region includes 45 Indian reservations.

The leadership council for the Center for Indian Country Development includes Dante Desiderio of the Native American Finance Officers Association; Miriam Jorgensen of the Native Nations Institute; Jacqueline Johnson Pata of the National Congress of American Indians; Jaime Pinkham of the Bush Foundation; Cris Stainbrook of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation; Sarah Dewees of the First Nations Development Institute; Elsie Meeks, the state director of the USDA Rural Development program in South Dakota; John Phillips of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, Gerald Sherman of Bar K Management and attorney and former North Dakota agriculture commissioner Sarah Vogel.


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