Impact Investing in Native Communities: Answer or Assimilation?

Native CDFIs contribute to Indigenous goals of sovereignty and self-determination — despite operating within a settler colonial system.

By Post Growth Fellow, Zoljargal Mendbayar

Tohono Indian Women during the Tucson 2019 Women’s March. Photo by Dulcey Lima via Unsplash.

Native peoples exist at once with their ancestors and unbirthed generations. Traditional Indigenous economies were organized in a circular and regenerative way for millennia — until they were disrupted by settler colonialism. Despite being labeled as an unfortunate historical event that happened and already passed for good, settler colonialism is a structure and not an event. Deep ties to land and realizing oneself as part of nature and in connection with all beings in a circular life was — and remains — the most advanced and holistic way of life that sustained all lives across time and place, yet it was deliberately construed as pre-modern and backward.

Colonial society has benefited from Western science, logic, and the growth-based values that claim dominion and universality over Native science, intuition, and relationship-based values. The illusion that humans have control over nature and can claim ownership of it, in my observation, stems from the separation of humans from nature that is fostered by colonialism, industrialism, privatization, and a growth economy. You don’t love what you don’t know, and if all you see is people dedicating their lives to prove they’re ‘above’ others, evidenced by material wealth and status, that’s all you value.

Understanding what people think of money and wealth goes deeper than a glimpse of their bank account — it’s about how they define who they are as a person.

Likewise, identity shapes choices, and if your identity is not connected to the land, your choices won’t be for the land. Understanding what people think of money and wealth goes deeper than a glimpse of their bank account — it’s about how they define who they are as a person. These two different worldviews, dominant colonial and Indigenous, dictate the way wealth and economy is defined and practiced in different systems.

With the list above, I emphasize that wealth, to Native peoples, means land and Mother Earth — and is not something to be owned but shared and nurtured. In the colonial worldview, wealth is ownership and something that you accumulate through growth, whether that be land, money, property, or power. Interestingly, both of these worldviews play out in the operations and roles of Native Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs).

Broadly defined, a CDFI is an Indigenous-led financial institution that has a primary mission of community development, serving a target market, and promoting financial inclusion among poorer and underserved communities. Investments from CDFIs are often done through community development banks, credit unions, loan funds, and microfinance institutions. They are set up to replenish their funding from both the federal government through application, as well as from private sector sources such as individuals, corporations, and religious institutions.

More impact investors have been seeking to invest in CDFIs, as these institutions proved particularly resilient during the global recession in 2008 compared to other financial institutions. The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the scale and effectiveness of impact investing worldwide, noted in its 2020 annual report that “Impact investing can play a role in re-imagining capitalism and reshaping the future”. At the same time, the GIIN has noted that over 65 percent of impact investors within its network say they want market-rate returns, which translates to a very high profit. This highlights a tremendous gap between investors’ expectations and the reality that investees who are innovators and changemakers face each day when it comes to ‘growth’.

In short, investors are claiming they are investing with the purpose of tackling the most devastating challenges on the planet to “help” Indigenous and other marginalized communities , but at the same time they require traditionally high returns from investments that are supposed to “…re-imagine capitalism and reshape the future”. There are prevalent two buzzwords in impact investing: ‘win-win’ solutions and ‘no trade-offs’. But the question is, win-win and no trade-offs for whom? Definitely not for Native CDFIs or Indigenous communities in the United States.

Growth in Native communities is relationship-based, not economy-based, so Native CFDIs are putting much effort into building localized decision-making that provides not only financial support, but also builds trust.

Indigenous communities have never identified their needs as being inclusion and better access to the economic system that they don’t agree with. Native CDFIs, therefore, have to juggle their very nuanced and significant role within a structure that was built by colonial systems but operates within Indigenous values.

Native CDFIs do provide useful short- and medium-term strategies to address immediate subsistence demands and reduce predatory lending through localized decision-making.

Growth in Native communities is relationship-based, not economy-based, and so Native CFDIs are putting much effort into building localized decision-making that provides not only financial support, but also builds trust. Despite the difficulties faced by Native CDFIs in operating within a wider colonial system, they do provide useful short- and medium-term strategies to address immediate subsistence demands and reduce predatory lending through localized decision-making, which in turn minimizes co-dependency and encourages more focus on decolonial works instead of being held back by immediate survival demands. With these short- and medium-term strategies, Native CDFIs are contributing to the longer -term and ultimate Indigenous goals of abolishing the dominant systems and achieving post-growth, Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination through a phased and distributed approach.

“…Research is an act of power”. My professor said this and it has sat in my brain since. Having the privilege to research, analyze, interpret, and complete a research with the observations and conclusions that reflect my point of view is indeed an act of power and therefore comes with a responsibility. I note that this article derives from my Master’s Capstone Project research that explored how Native communities in the United States are engaging with the dominant systems of finance while striving to realize liberation from these very systems. The paper was not peer-reviewed or published in journals, as it was a product for my own learning. The content is reflective of my own opinion as a non-Native American person and not representative of Indigenous minds. All knowledge comes from somebody and no research has an absolute representation of communities explored in the research.

Three things you can do right now if you found the article helpful:

  1. Read the Red Deal, “a call for action beyond the scope of the US colonial state,” and “a program for Indigenous liberation, life, and land — an affirmation that colonialism and capitalism must be overturned for this planet to be habitable for human and other-than-human relatives to live dignified lives.”
  2. Donate to the Red Nation, a coalition of Native and non-Native activists, educators, students, and community organizers advocating Native liberation.
  3. Help promote this article by liking and/or sharing these posts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Sign up here for email alerts when articles like this are shared on social media.

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Zol Mend

Zol Mend

Mongolian Researcher unlearning, exploring, and re-building her own truths and values rooted in indigeneity.