The Native CDFI Network (NCN) developed the “Native CDFIs: Difference Makers for Indian Country” interview series to cast a much-needed spotlight on the many positive benefits that Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs) create for tribal communities and the leaders who help make Native CDFIs the transformational success stories they are.

Jonelle Yearout

In this latest edition of “Difference Makers,” NCN sits down with Jonelle Yearout, who is Executive Director of Nimiipuu Fund, a federally certified Native CDFI that serves the Nez Perce Reservation and traditional territories of Nez Perce in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Jonelle also was recently appointed Northwest Regional Delegate on NCN’s Policy Committee.

An enrolled member of the Nez Perce Tribe, Yearout is passionate about solving challenging social and economic issues for the Nez Perce Tribe, her fellow tribal members, and surrounding rural communities. Her mission-driven focus is on delivering innovative products and services that raise up her people’s voice and enable them to create a brighter future.

In this wide-ranging conversation with NCN, Yearout shares her personal journey and how it has shaped her approach to growing Nimiipuu Fund’s ability to holistically support the community members it serves.

NCN: Why do you do what you do? How did you come to lead the Nimiipuu Fund?

Yearout: Back in 2013, I saw that the Nez Perce Tribe was developing a CDFI and advertising for the Executive Director position. Like a lot of other people, I thought, “What’s a CDFI and how is it going to help?” Again in 2015, the Executive Director position was advertised. I was in graduate school at the time studying Urban & Regional Planning, where we reviewed models for economic development that included Native CDFIs. My aunt Lilly Kauffman, who studied Native CDFIs, was one of the founding members of Nimiipuu Fund. She shared with me stories of powerhouse women like Eloise Cobell and Tanya Fiddler, formerly of the Native CDFI Network. She said to me, “I know you’re in school, I know you’re busy, but I think you need to apply for this job.” When your Aunty or an elder tells you something, you listen. My personal life was full at that time as a single mother attending graduate school and separating myself from domestic violence. I didn’t feel that I was a model candidate for this position. However, I was raised to find what you love to do, but that you are also of service – to your family, community, natural resources, and the future generations.

When I came on with Nimiipuu in December 2016, I was just trying to figure out up from down. How do I underwrite a loan? Or become a “banker” as our clients liked to say. My background included family advocacy, research, accounting, and leadership, which helped me in my new role. As a lifelong member of the community, I understood cycles of poverty, violence, addiction, and codependency – all of those things that are part of historical trauma. Everybody deserves a chance, right? As a mother and a tribal woman, I took all of that in and I wanted to nurture Nimiipuu so we can recreate and take control of our tribal economy.

NCN: As you know, there are more than 70 federally certified Native CDFIs across the country and many more “emerging” CDFIs following in their footsteps. Why did tribal nations and communities feel it necessary to create CDFIs, and what fundamental role do they play?

Yearout: We’re the only certified Native CDFI in Idaho. It’s an expression of sovereignty. It’s doing for your own and taking that risk to express how you will create your own economy. It’s also the importance of accessing credit for individuals, for businesses, for homeowners to get a loan on trust land. If you think about federal policy historically, our wealth was taken from us. Tribes are wanting to take that back, and a financial institution is part of the solution. How can we do this for ourselves?

Another important point is our industry works together. We provide one another a helping hand. There’s those established Native CDFIs that are willing to help out, like, “Here’s a copy of a memo. Here’s some sample policies, and this is how I did it.” Paying that forward is so valuable and that’s what I’ve done.

NCN: What do policymakers and the general public need to understand about Native CDFIs and the difference they make?

Yearout: It’s just the acronym, you know, the alphabet soup for “CDFI” or “community development financial institution.” We are a financial institution serving Native communities that have had resources and opportunity stripped from them. Are you able to walk or get into your car to drive to a bank? Our tribal members get the predatory loan letters every day. They come to their mailbox. There’s more than 20 predatory lenders in the nearest border town. That’s fast, easy capital, but risky. But you know what? We’re trying to take that back and provide the financial education, give our people the tools so they can build their financial capabilities. We provide safe and affordable capital that is not predatory. We are the same as our community members. We are from the community. So we want to see the betterment of that. We’re building from the individual to the family to the business owner to the homeowner. We’re building those things to help us thrive. Other tribes are following a similar path by developing their own Native CDFIs. Policymakers need to see the demand in Indian Country and throw more dollars into the Native initiatives at the U.S. Treasury and CDFI Fund. Native CDFIs have proven to be effective.

NCN: Tell us about the Nimiipuu Fund. What is its mission, and how does it work to foster prosperity in the communities it serves?

Yearout: Nimiipuu Fund was established in 2013 and we were federally certified in 2018. Our strategic vision is focused on enhancing the personal entrepreneurial capacity of the Nez Perce Reservation and surrounding communities. We promote economic growth while embracing our cultural values and traditions by providing tailored financial products and services. We tailor those products and services based on the needs of the community. So, on the consumer side, that means debt reduction, coaching, credit building loans – those sort of things – to get them ready if they want to buy a home or start a business. Our consumer loans are the largest part of our portfolio. But we are doing business lending and we’ve done a couple of participation loans, too. Soon we will start home improvement lending. We want to break the cycles of poverty. I started out as a person of one running this operation, and now we have four full-time employees based on the growth and the need. We’re growing and we’re keeping our finger on the pulse on the market. Again, it comes down to our vision of self-determination and sovereignty.

“We’re supporting the businesses that provide jobs and help people sustain themselves, because not everybody’s going to be working for the tribal government.”

NCN: You mentioned earlier that prior to CDFIs being created, wealth was just leaving the reservations largely because of federal policies. Can you talk about the role that CDFIs play in cultivating a private sector economy on reservations that helps keep the wealth local and re-establish what once were vibrant, thriving systems of local, tribal commerce? How is that unfolding at Nez Perce?

Yearout: With federal programs and the reliance on programs, you’re relying on that system that has failed you from cradle to grave. With my parents as former tribal politicians, it’s a puzzle they all try to solve and they want to look generations ahead where things are going to be sustainable for our people, resources, and lands. Our tribal economy is not something that’s new. We’ve been here, based on the archeological record, for 17,000 years or more. We had our own economic systems, we had trade routes, we had fishing, we had bartering. Nimiipuu’s logo is based on the dentalium shell, a form of money. So that’s not foreign to us. So what we’re doing is getting that capital and then we’re hustling. I say that as single moms, we can hustle. So I’m going to hustle, right? And we’re going to tell our story. We’re going to get these funds. We’re going to help these people. And guess what? Those funds, they just they revolve back and that’s what we tell our clients. When you pay it back, it’s going to go out to somebody else. We’re taking the power back. We’re supporting the businesses that provide jobs and help people sustain themselves, because not everybody’s going to be working for the tribal government. They’re doing something they’re passionate about. They’re artists, weavers, fishermen, they raise cattle. They’re providing for their families that way.

The Nimiipuu Fund’s 2021 Holiday Native Artist Popup Shop. Pictured is Wetalu “Lulu” Henry, owner of Nchi.wana. (Courtesy: Nimiipuu Fund)

NCN: With the Nez Perce Tribe’s creation of Nimiipuu, there was a long-term plan for establishing the Fund, letting it get its legs under it, growing its capacity, growing its know-how, and then allowing it to walk on its own and gain a greater measure of independence. What is the plan for growing Nimiipuu and its ability to positively impact the community?

Yearout: We developed a strategic plan in early 2020, and this was right before the pandemic hit and everything shut down. The thing about it is we found that demand increased during the pandemic because people were scrambling and trying to figure out what to do. It really demonstrated the need for a CDFI in the community for helping people and helping small businesses. It did grow that awareness. It’s really the word on the street in how you talk to people and treat people.

In the work that we do, we are showing we’re needed and we’re viable. We will continue to grow our staff, add loan products, respond to our community’s needs, create more success stories, and promote sovereignty.

NCN: Your CDFI supports tribal citizens from all walks of life in various ways. Can you share with us an inspiring success story of an individual client you work or have worked with?

Yearout: My sister went through addiction and recovery and graduated from a center in Portland and she was moving home. A lot of people when they go through that addiction and recovery, there’s no community resource to really welcome them back. She brought back a curriculum called “Wellbriety” by White Bison. In discussion with her and some of the participants of her group that are facing addiction, they are going through those steps of recovery and making amends to their families, to those that they’ve hurt. They’re coming back to the circle, they’re coming back to the tribe. With the CDFI, there’s also the financial wellness component of that. They have court fees, they have debt, they’re separated from their children. They have all these different barriers to get back to a normal life. Some people have thousands of dollars of court fees. So we were working with one client and my sister convinced her to come talk to us. We did a piggybank event with the local head start and she brought her kids. She talked to me about her situation and found she had long distrusted money. As we got to talk more, she gave us permission to work with her advocate and different tribal programs. As part of addressing her barriers, we were able to do the coaching and some of the financial education components. She then became eligible for one of our consumer credit builder loans. We were able to work with our tribal housing to get her a home. She then graduated to other loan products. In continuing her financial education, we do check-ins with her. That’s just a story of someone re-emerging and re-entering the community and trying to make amends. And she’s thriving. These are the impacts we are realizing – it fuels us to continue doing our work.

NCN: Last question: From your perspective, what do Native CDFIs like yours need to realize their full potential? What support do they need to achieve their missions and maximize their impact?

Yearout: It’s a labor of love. Our team members and board know that. They work long hours to get our clients loan ready. It’s a lot of work that you put into an organization to help your community because you have the heart for the community. Native CDFIs are a very small but also a very mighty sector of the financial industry. It’s really understanding those financial markets and the need to raise capital. There was a time where it took the Tribe a lot of convincing to provide us grant capital to get that certification. Graduating from that, it’s having to prove ourselves through grant applications and with investors. A lot of it is about networking and relationship building. When potential investors ask how they can support us, we talk about low-cost capital and general operating support because the volume and number of loan requests we receive is far beyond what’s available. All of us Native CDFIs have so much room and reason to grow. Invest in us in some way or form.

To learn more about Nimiipuu Fund, please click here.