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Historically, Native Americans haven’t been represented in finance. There’s been some movement, especially as tribes have looked to shore up their economic development. For example, the passing of the Indian Gaming Act, in 1988, set up the path for Native American-owned gaming which turned more tribal attention towards investing as a means of fiscal independence.

Still, indigenous communities aren’t necessarily plugged into the investing world. Reviews of investors have found that they’re more likely to commit to including “Indigenous People’s Issues” in their social investing than to implement those promises, though the negative risks of ignoring indigenous issues are rising. “This disconnect between philosophy and practice is emblematic of broader power and relational asymmetries between Indigenous Peoples and the private investment world,” write Nikki Pieratos and Chrystel Cornelius, two investing professionals covered below, who have recommended the use of indigenous intermediaries to bridge the divide. Several of the people covered here have worked to serve as that bridge.

Key Takeaways

  • Contrary to the popular impression, many tribes are struggling economically, especially since COVID-19.
  • The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act created a footpath for the Native American gaming industry, Since then, tribal communities have looked towards furthering investments in a wide variety of fields.
  • A number of Native American-led firms are working to spur economic development and build tribal sovereignty.

Nikki Pieratos

Executive Director, Tiwahe Foundation

Nikki Pieratos is a prominent figure in community-development finance, one who’s widely published on the issue.

Pieratos serves as the executive director of the Tiwahe Foundation, which offers grants with a focus on cultural revitalization, educational advancement, and entrepreneurship. The foundation—whose name is based on the Dakota word for family—describes itself as a community resource based on the idea of “a continuous cycle of success grounded in indigenous culture that recognizes that giving benefits both giver and receiver.”

Previously, Pieratos served as managing director of the NDN Collective, an advocacy group that aims to build indigenous power by decolonizing and developing Native American communities, as well as fighting resource extraction.

Pieratos is a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and holds a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago.

Chrystel Cornelius

President and CEO, Oweesta Corporation

Chrystel Cornelius leads the Oweesta Corporation, which serves as an intermediary between Native American communities and the U.S. Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.

Cornelius is an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota.

In 2020, the U.S Securities and Exchange Commission updated its definition of “accredited investor” to incorporate Native American tribes, governments, and funds.

Leonard Smith

CEO, Native American Development Corporation

Leonard Smith was involved in securing funding for the Tribal Leadership Council in Montana and Wyoming.

He founded the Native American Development Corporation, an intermediary for economic development organizations and Native American businesses. Smith serves as its CEO.

An enrolled member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribe of the Ft. Peck in Montana, Smith has also assisted organizations such as Native American Capital in vetting projects for investment.

Before COVID-19, Native American tribes watched their revenues grow significantly—mostly thanks to investments in industries like hospitality and gambling, according to one analysis. That made them financially vulnerable to COVID’s closures. In the aftermath, tribes are now looking to diversify, including a turn to venture capital and private equity investments.

Joseph L. Falkson

Senior Managing Director, Native American Capital

Joseph L. Falkson co-founded Native American Capital, a financial consultancy in Washington, DC. The consultancy connects investors with Native American enterprises.

In his position as senior managing director, Falkson runs their tribal financial services consulting: connecting tribes to federal financing.


The percentage of philanthropic funding received by indigenous communities, according to the nonprofits Candid and Native Americans in Philanthropy, a network of groups that invest in indigenous communities. Native Americans constitute roughly 2% of the US population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Lynn Dee Rapp

Member, Board of Trustees, The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development

An enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Lynn Dee Rapp is on the board of trustees for the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, a nonprofit focused on facilitating tribal economic development.

Rapp is also on the board of the American Indian College Fund, which supports Native American students.

What’s the Native American Venture Fund?

The Native American Venture Fund is an impact investing fund that works with Native American ventures. It describes its goal as providing the human and financial capital to take advantage of the public policies that exist to incentivize Native American enterprise.

What’s the Native American Rights Fund?

The Native American Rights Fund is a registered nonprofit. Founded in 1970, it provides legal assistance to people, tribes, and organizations, especially on issues of tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, natural resource protection, and education, according to its site. It’s an important organization in the landscape affecting Native American investing and entrepreneurship.

Are Native American Businesses Exempt From US Federal Taxes?

Under some circumstances. According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, businesses formed under acts including the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act are exempt, while state-chartered businesses typically aren’t. Tribal taxation is a complex and fraught question, which complicates tax issues for businesses formed under tribal law.

The Bottom Line

Native Americans continue to face barriers to economic opportunity, including smaller networks in the investment community. Both tribes and individual Native Americans are building out development through increased use of investing. The investment professionals above are working to expand the financial security of indigenous peoples.

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