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I heard a Navajo song years ago that continues to hold an important lesson. As a board member for a regional Native professional association, we’d hired a young Navajo man to serve as our executive director. At our annual conference a few months later, he shared with the crowd how the subject matter of our association intimidated him because his formal studies had been in a separate field.

He acclimated to his new role by spending time with the veteran members of the association. As he took in their wisdom he gained appreciation for our shared work, in particular their leadership forging new opportunities for tribes in an area that had little precedent. As he relayed his experience, it was clear that storytelling is a natural resource that the best in our community have and share freely – as they had done with him.

The stories caused him to reflect on his traditional upbringing and soon he accepted his new role and led with confidence from that day forward. He sang part of what is known as a “hooghan song.” In English, the words of the song mean: first we think about it, then we pray about it, then we plan it, then we do it, and then we take care of it.

The young executive director certainly thought and prayed about the issues and he’d begun the planning process by first listening to his revered industry elders on the technical side of our work. To “do” however required much data and new protocols. He grew confident, he said, because as a young man he’d been taught by his father, uncles, and grandfathers in ceremony that any difficult endeavor benefits from process and protocol – and that both can be learned and modified as needed.

Today, as in years past and likely well into the future, the many challenges that face Indian Country will require the use of data combined with our ability to engage in time-honored processes including both western industry protocols and traditional ceremonies. Each can serve as powerful tools to retell our stories in new ways that may produce the solutions so needed in tribal communities. Indeed, applying the gift of storytelling to the datasets over which western business culture obsesses could become one of the most powerful tools we can use to rebuild Indian Country.

There are already examples. Take the recent wave of film and television projects that are Native-led, Native-cast, Native-written and Native-produced – and that have won critical acclaim including a very recent Golden Globe Award. 

That didn’t happen on its own. It happened because Native voices found hard data to tell a clear story. Crystal EchoHawk leads an organization called Illuminative that has used data about racism against Native Americans to launch a social enterprise that has influenced many of those successful shows and movies. The effort is a deliberate attempt by Natives to tell their own stories and correct racist narratives about American Indians that have persisted far too long.

The Hopi Tribe and others have used tribal run census counts to challenge the US Census, which typically undercounts Natives. The result: certification by federal authorities that tribal census figures are superior and awards of larger Indian Housing Block Grant funds that rely on tribal population counts.

Casey Lozar, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes who leads Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has recently encouraged Indian Country to use data to tell stories. Data-driven storytelling that specifically highlights and explains the sovereign authority tribes have to develop their economies could do much to help us address long-standing social and economic suffering on tribal lands. Data is especially crucial for us because the US laws and regulations that can benefit tribal communities all run on numbers and spreadsheets and formulas – particularly the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which was just updated to force banks to report on how much or little they invest in Indian Country.

Our non-profit organization, Native Community Capital, took Mr. Lozar’s request to heart by commissioning a report — “REDLINING THE RESERVATION: The Brutal Cost Of Financial Services Inaccessibility In Native Communities” — that was produced in collaboration with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. 

Redlining can be defined as the intentional exclusion by banks of minority, immigrant and economically-distressed communities from financial services. Sure enough, the data and stories told in our study reflect what those of us living and working in Indian Country have known all along – a lived reality of financial exclusion too often overlooked by the general population.

Our intention with “Redlining the Rez” is to draw attention to the bias of omission that has affected tribes and to establish a baseline for measuring access to capital by tribal communities pre- and post-implementation of the new CRA regulations.

We believe the only red lines that should exist in Indian Country are those naturally formed by the mesas, along the waterways and landscapes of the red earth that defines much of tribal land in the Southwest United States. 

The practice of redlining tribal communities by financial institutions must be done away with so the physical beauty of tribal landscapes are matched by what could be much more vibrant economies across Indian Country.

The various data-based storytelling recounted here only works if tribes and their allies think, pray, plan, do and take care of the data resources that belong to Indian Country. As a tribal elected leader from years past once said at a large gathering of tribal elected officials, “If we’re going to be sovereign, we must act sovereign.” 

What data-based stories might you tell in 2024 and beyond to rebuild tribal economies and advance tribal sovereignty? Let’s answer that question together.

Mr. Castillo is the CEO of Native Community Capital, a Native community development financial institution (CDFI) and licensed mortgage bank (NMLS 1950947 AZMB 1012372) serving American Indian homebuyers. He co-authored the Redlining the Rez report and produced a series of related policy recommendations in collaboration with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which also provided research and analysis.