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Native fintech start-up Totem Technologies has landed its first tribal partnership. 

A new collaboration with the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma will offer Totem’s digital banking app to the Tribe’s 3,500 enrolled members. Totem, founded in 2022 by CEO Amber Buker (Choctaw) and Richard Chance (Cherokee), created the app to serve the needs of Native communities and partner with tribal governments to help them distribute benefits to their members. 

Eastern Shawnee Chief Glenna J. Wallace said the partnership will boost the tribe’s economic growth. 

“We are always looking at ways to empower our citizens,” Chief Wallace said in a statement. “Working with Totem provides a great opportunity for us to provide best-in-class financial products to our people while simultaneously growing economic opportunities in areas that we already lead in — namely, financial services and innovation.” 

The Eastern Shawnee Tribe already has a foothold in the financial and technology sectors. The tribe is a majority owner of Seneca, Mo.-based Peoples’ Bank of Seneca, a $364 million (assets) financial institution. Additionally, it announced in December that it partnered with Vancouver-based Lucky Lady Games Inc. to develop a gaming venture in the Metaverse. 

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Partnering with Totem will enable the tribe to offer fee-free, FDIC-insured accounts to its members, complete with a virtual and physical debit card, access to a network of 55,000 surcharge-free ATMs, and early paycheck access. 

Access to banking has been a long-standing issue in Indian Country. Geographic isolation and institutionalized racism have left many Native communities in “financial deserts” that lack banking institutions altogether. The average distance from the center of a reservation to the nearest bank is 12.2 miles, according to a 2017 report from the Native Nations Institute. 

According to the Federal Deposits Insurance Corporation’s 2019 survey, Native communities have the highest rates of unbanked households at 16.3 percent. 

Totem is focused exclusively on building Native wealth, encouraging incremental savings and responsible spending in Indigenous communities. The app provides information on national and tribe-specific benefit programs for users to access financial support.

As well, Totem shares revenue with its partner tribes: every time a tribal member uses their Totem debit card to make a purchase, a portion of the fees generated from the transaction go back to the tribe. 

Later in the year, Totem plans to roll out a product designed to help Native Americans build credit. 

“We couldn’t be happier to be working with the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma to launch Totem,” Amber Buker, Totem’s founder and CEO, said in a statement. “Together with our current and future tribal partners, we’re working to create a new tradition of Native wealth-building that will help all of our people thrive for generations to come.” 

Buker, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, made headlines in Dec. 2022 when Totem secured $2.2 million in investments in a pre-seed round. According to prior Tribal Business News reporting, Vancouver-based Raven Indigenous Capital Partners led the round, which also included funding from Alloy Alchemist Fund and Debut Capital, both based in New York, and New Orleans, La.-based Ruthless for Good. Oakland, Calif.-based social justice investor Candide Group also participated in the round on behalf of multiple families, foundations, and other investors.

In an interview with Tribal Business News, Buker said most of the investments came from the impact investment space. 

“Most impact investors have a double-bottom-line mentality where they’re looking at the bottom line from a return standpoint — clearly, as every investor does — but adding in that second bottom line, which is the impact that you can have in communities that you want to help build up,” she said. “They understand that this isn’t just, ‘Let’s fill the neobank and get some interchange and move on.’ This is, ‘Let’s build a solution that helps people access benefits and long-term resources that will, over time, shift the narrative of Native people and their relationship with money.’

Totem also received a $125,000 grant from Amazon Web Services as a part of its Impact Accelerator for Women Founders. Buker was selected as one of 25 women founders out of thousands of applicants. 

The pre-seed round put Buker in rare company as one of few Indigenous women founders to date who have successfully closed on multi-million dollar capital raises.

Totem is set to launch this spring. Interested users can sign up for a waitlist for early access to the app, which also comes with a monthly newsletter with financial tips tailored to Native Americans.