After 20 years of outsourcing, a person calling a customer support line would not be surprised to end up talking to someone in India. But people calling for help with online lending businesses are starting to talk to a different kind of Indian.
Plain Green, an online installment loan company owned by the Chippewa Cree Tribe, just celebrated the first anniversary of their call center on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. In an office attached to the Chippewa Cree Construction building near Box Elder, 12 phone operators have been handling up to 140 calls a day, each.
And it’s been working well for them. From January to August, Plain Green gave $1,614,897.33 back to the tribal government, after paying their own bills and setting some aside for future investments and growth.
Plain Green is one of two lending companies controlled by the tribe’s Bear Paw Holdings financial management group. The other, First American Capital Resources, is a short-term online lender set up in May 2011.
Both ventures are partnerships with out-of-state groups called Encore and Think Finance.
Bear Paw’s CEO, Billianne Raining Bird-Morsette, said the company is working hard on making sure the existing companies have enough room and resources to grow and trying to figure out new programs to pursue.
“It is also my goal to diversify our businesses so that if the Federal government changes any laws regarding any of our businesses that we have other successful ventures to fall back on and we will continue to bring in revenue, ” Morsette said in a newsletter. “I know that money is not the answer to all of our problems but it can and will help us to provide better health care, housing, education, cultural preservation, and provide preventive programs and services that can improve living conditions and the overall well-being of our community as long as we work together and support each other. ”
This talk of a self-sufficient reservation is common around Rocky Boy these days.
Ted Whitford, member of the tribal Business Committee and Bear Paw Holding’s board, explained why $2.5 million of Rocky Boy’s $8.442 million settlement from the federal government went to Bear Paw investments in July, saying that he dreamed of a tribal trust fund worth $200 million that could take care of the tribe forever, without relying on any outside assistance.
In that same inaugural newsletter, tribal Business Committee Chair Bruce Sunchild Sr. repeated this desire.
“We are currently establishing the best team possible to help these businesses progress, grow employment, and one day bring us true self-sufﬁciency and ultimate Sovereignty, ” Sunchild Sr. said.
Tony Belcourt, current House District 32 state representative and head of Chippewa Cree Construction, spoke at the call center’s anniversary gathering, touting the strides already taken.
“It’s all about creating opportunity for our people, ” Belcourt said. “It's been a rocky road, but I think we're in a good place. As a community we need to remember what it was like when we didn't have these resources. We were 90 percent federal dependent.
“For me this is all about independence and taking care of ourselves. ”
Raining Bird-Morsette also spoke of John “Roddy” Sunchild, who she “was honored to have been mentored by, ” in the newsletter. Sunchild served on the Business Committee from the middle 1980s through the early 1990s, when he helped coordinate Rocky Boy’s self-governance pact.
As other reservations have discovered the revenue potential, online lending has almost become the 21st century’s Indian casinos.
So many reservations have opted in, and Rocky Boy had enough experience early enough, that the tribe “helped spearhead the formation of a trade association that will help tribes protect their businesses but also help guide us in the proper federal laws that regulate online lending, ” according to Bruce Sunchild, who is also the chair of the board of directors of that recently founded organization, the Native American Financial Services Association.
NAFSA serves many purposes: to help tribes get started with lessons from other member tribes, to watch and speak up on legislation that would affect tribal online lending, and to develop and enforce a code of ethics for all tribes and companies, to avoid the kinds of practices that have led to payday loan operations being illegal in Montana.
“We not only feel it is important that we conduct ourselves in a respectful manner, but we are adamant about ensuring we have a strong compliance and regulatory structure that oversees the businesses and the service providers that we associate with to ensure they are ethical and do not have any history that would have a negative impact on our businesses or our tribe, ” Sunchild said in the newsletter. “We want people to know that we are not that negative story that has been criticized by the press and has given the industry a one-sided view. ”
Rocky Boy and Plain Green are such a fundamental part of this movement, the NAFSA website’s “about” page contains two paragraphs of text and one five-minute video all about Plain Green.
With plans in the works for Plain Green office expansion and the new investment opportunities for Bear Paw Holdings, it looks like the tribe may have found a path to their ultimate sovereignty.