Courtesy South Dakota Secretary of State
In a bid to increase economic development on Pine Ridge, Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellowbird Steele (right) and South Dakota Secretary of State Shantel Krebs sign a Memorandum of Understanding that renews the tribe's access to the state's central filing system for secured loans.

Better Way to Get Money: Enhancing Economic Development and Equal Rights in South Dakota

Stephanie Woodard

In a ceremony in Pierre, South Dakota, Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellowbird Steele and Secretary of State Shantel Krebs renewed a compact that allows lenders to file the tribe’s and tribal members’ secured loans with her office. It’s one of the practical ways the newly elected state official is reaching out to South Dakota Native communities.

Obtaining credit is essential for starting or expanding businesses, yet this has been difficult in Indian country. Lenders have generally wanted more assurance that they can collect under tribal law if a borrower defaults. By adopting the Model Tribal Secured Transaction Act, which lays out rules for lenders and borrowers, and by being a part of the state’s centralized filing system, the Oglala Sioux Tribe offers lenders predictability and transparency, said Krebs. Clarifying a tribe’s legal infrastructure is, in turn, critical for economic development, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which has just opened the Center for Indian Country Development.

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With tribal loans filed with the secretary of state, big banks have been coming onto the reservation to make loans, said Tony Taylor, loan officer for Lakota Funds, a lender on Pine Ridge. “Lenders know they can go to tribal court if they have to collect. We at Lakota Funds have about 25 listings of our own on the secretary of state’s database. We also search it prior to closing a loan to be sure the collateral is free and clear.”

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has a similar loan-filing arrangement with South Dakota, while the Chippewa Cree and Crow tribes have compacts with Montana and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe with Minnesota. When the Oglala Sioux Tribe struck its first formal agreement with South Dakota in 2008, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis called it an historic occasion. In 2012, the Federal Reserve System’s governors described the tribe’s commercial code as “innovative, comprehensive, and well-integrated.”

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Such agreements are “beneficial all around,” Krebs said. Empowered tribal entrepreneurs make business purchases on their homelands and, when something isn’t available there, buy it nearby. “It’s about getting the dollars to turn over, on and off the reservation. It’s about investment and opportunity.”

The secretary is also South Dakota’s top elections official. Here again, she is grappling with problems that once appeared intractable. After decades of contention—with continual accusations of voter suppression and more than 20 Native voting-rights lawsuits—Krebs has clarified the way counties obtain federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) monies for election needs. This includes funding for reservation satellite polling places that tribal members say are essential for equal ballot-box access. Requests for support will be funneled through a newly appointed bipartisan committee with tribal representation.

In the weeks ahead, Secretary Krebs will meet with tribes and counties to discuss how and where to set up satellite voting. It starts with a simple calculation, she said. “We have a formula in our state HAVA plan. If a community has more than 50 percent of its population below the poverty line, and they live, on average, more than 50 percent farther from the county-seat polling place than other people in the county, it gets an office.”

Krebs may be a Republican, but she has support on both sides of the aisle. Jeff Barth, a Democratic Minnehaha county commissioner, praised Krebs’s efforts. “She takes very seriously her responsibilities as a public servant,” Barth said.

Relationship building is key, according to Krebs, a 10-year veteran of the state legislature whose name has been floated for statewide office. “In South Dakota, we’re a small population. We have shared values, and we take care of our own.”

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