Annie Talks Different had never had a bank account before she went to visit the new Bear Paw Credit Union outreach office on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in October. On Wednesday, she came to check on her children's savings account.
Talks Different's 13-year-old son, Jarmayne Bird Tail, had wanted to open an account but other local banks required a minimum deposit of $100, she said. Bear Paw Credit Union opened the account for a minimum deposit of $25.
"He needed to make some room in his piggy bank," she said. "He likes to save."
Banking options are expanding at the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy Indian reservations, shortening the commute to financial services and drawing in first-time bank customers.
Three years ago, the Chippewa Cree Tribe invested $1 million in the Native American Bank, a bank owned and operated by 21 tribes and tribal organizations. Last year NAB opened a loan-processing office at Rocky Boy, which, along with the bank location in Browning and another office in Alaska, are NAB's only facilities.
Rocky Boy's NAB office will soon have a new home near the agency. The office is temporarily located at Stone Child College.
The Rocky Boy office handles everything but cash transactions, said manager Theresa Hawley. Bankers do take deposits and customers can use an ATM to withdraw cash.
As of June, Fort Belknap residents have a financing option closer to home as well. Bear Paw Credit Union operates an outreach office in the reservation's Small Business Development Center, with representatives available on Wednesday afternoons to assist customers.
"We can provide all the same products and services that we can here at our office in Havre," said vice president April Baiamonte, who is in charge of the outreach program. The only thing the credit union representatives can't do is dispense cash. They are working on purchasing an ATM machine for the reservation, Baiamonte said.
Until the credit union opened its outreach office, Chinook was the closest Bear Paw Credit Union location.
Baiamonte recalls arriving at Fort Belknap during a snowstorm several weeks ago.
"We had numerous people say, 'We're so glad you came"' because they were saved the trip to Chinook, she said.
Linda Azure of Fort Belknap came Wednesday to deposit a paycheck. She has been a customer of the credit union for more than 10 years, she said. She also received some advice on a trip she is planning to Mexico. She said she will get an ATM and debit card through the credit union, and the representatives explained how those work in a foreign country, she said.
"I had heard good things about Bear Paw," Azure said about her decision to become a member.
The credit union, she said, is "more accessible for our people."
Robert King came in to check on the progress of a loan application. He has been a customer of the credit union for about 20 years, he said. He has banked with Independence Bank as well, but transferred his accounts to Bear Paw when it started coming out to Fort Belknap, he said.
"There's not too many people around here who don't use it," he said.
Another woman who met with representatives Wednesday said she used to drive to Chinook during her lunch hour to deposit checks, a trip that would take the entire hour.
Baiamonte said that's the big benefit of the credit union's outreach program: It shortens the distance people have to travel.
"It's not that you don't do it. It's not that you won't do it. It's that your life is a lot easier if you don't have to," she said.
Several of the people who stopped in to see the credit union representatives said they have loans through the NAB office at Rocky Boy.
King said NAB made it easy for him. The bank faxed him all the forms and helped him over the phone. The whole process required only one trip to the NAB Rocky Boy office to drop off the signed forms.
Greg Drummer, business instructor at Stone Child College, hopes business and employment opportunities on Rocky Boy's Reservation will expand through other efforts as well. A tribal business information center ran out of funding several years ago, creating a vacuum to be filled.
The college has five students scheduled to graduate with associate degrees in business this year, as well as students who went through the program, entered four-year universities and will be graduating this year.
The Stone Child College business degree program offers classes in accounting, marketing, management, law, math and economics, as well as computer and communications courses.
"Slowly but surely we're going to see more and more students get their degrees," Drummer said.
While a majority of students go to work for the tribe or at existing companies, Drummer said he hopes the program can also be an incubator for entrepreneurship.
"We need a lot more because we have a terribly high unemployment rate," he said.
People interested in starting a business can contact the tribe, or Drummer directly.
Bear Paw Development Corp. will be running a two-day workshop for Drummer's students in June, which he said he'd like to see opened up to the community.
Tiffany Korb, Small Business Development Center director for Bear Paw Development Corp., is planning the workshop, which will fall over two half-days. It will contain advice on writing a business plan and the basics of starting a business.
She and several colleagues have organized a workshop at the Holiday Village Shopping Center for April 22, which will run from noon to 6 p.m. and will include information on financing as well.
Mildred Kinsey, director of Fort Belknap's Small Business Development Center, has learned to make do with a staff of one - herself. The office once had four employees, but ran out of grant funding a year ago.
Kinsey has been recognized for her work as a one-woman show. She will receive a state award from the Small Business Administration next month - Minority Small Business Champion of the Year.
Kinsey was out of town this week, but the director of planning at Fort Belknap, Caroline Brown, explained Kinsey's work. Brown worked for the office for seven years.
"The business center is so vital to economic development at the reservation," Brown said.
People receive help creating a business plan and learning about ways to seek financing. Most of the businesses that come out of the center are home-based, she said.
"When they get done with their business plan, it's a finished product they can take to a lender," she said.
A client of the office won second place in a Montana Department of Commerce business plan contest. The woman now runs a business in Chinook.
About half of the businesses reach their five-year anniversary, Brown said, which is about the nationwide average.
Financing can be tough, though, Brown said. Though residents can use some reservation land as collateral, the process is complicated and many lenders are wary of it.
According to information available through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribally held land cannot be used as collateral, but a leaseholder's improvements can be. All of Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation is tribally held land, while Montana's other reservations include individually allotted land as well as land held in common.
Fort Belknap's office offers workshops twice yearly, and always invites lenders to speak about ways to obtain loans, Brown said.