Turtle Mountain see private Indian owned bank opened

By James MacPherson
Belcourt, North Dakota (AP) 2-08

Customer service representative Shelby Keplin counts money at the Turtle Mountain State Bank, on the Turtle Mountain Reservation, in Belcourt, N.D., Jan. 17, 2008. AP Photo by Will Kincaid

Annie Lassond opened her first-ever savings account recently. “I never had any extra money and there wasn’t a bank,” said Lassond, 45, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

Now she has money, and a bank.

Officials believe the Turtle Mountain State Bank on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in north central North Dakota is the first bank on a U.S. reservation to be privately owned by American Indians. Banks on other reservations are typically owned by tribes or non-Indian companies. The Turtle Mountain State Bank is the brainchild of tribal member James Laducer, a Bismarck-area businessman and real estate developer who grew up on the reservation.

“A bank is the backbone to economic growth in any community,” Laducer said. “But people wanting to do banking had to go at least 10 to 20 miles off the reservation to get to a bank.”

Belcourt, the largest town on the reservation, has about 20 businesses, including a casino, grocery, a Chinese restaurant and bowling alley. It also has a community college and two weekly newspapers.

The bank is starting in a temporary, prefabricated office building moved from Bismarck, with seven employees. Laducer said a new structure will be built within three years.

Dacotah Bank in Rolla, a few miles northeast of the reservation, has had a “paying and receiving” branch in Belcourt for nearly 20 years, said Val Edwards, a bank vice president. She said the branch can cash checks and accept loan payments but it cannot open accounts or loan money.

The new bank in Belcourt brings to four the number of banks in Rolette County, said Dan Vollmer, president of Dacotah Bank in Rolla.

“I think there is a very good chance they will do well,” he said. “I think it will help the economy grow, and in the end, it will be very helpful for the whole county.”

A full-service bank had been mulled for at least 30 years on the reservation, Laducer said. He joined with tribal members and business owners Phyllis Jollie and Ken L. Davis and Bismarck banker Gerald Willer to get it started.

Laducer said he, Jollie and Davis are the bank’s majority owners. He said Willer has a 2 percent stake in the business and provided guidance.

“They needed a banker in the group, obviously, to get things put together with regulators and to get things started in the right direction,” said Willer, president of Kirkwood Band and Trust Co. in Bismarck.

“Most of the shopping and support has been going to towns around Belcourt because of the lack of commerce in town, including a bank,” Willer said.

“There is a lot of pride up there in the fact they got a bank,” he said. “With the bank, you’ll probably see more businesses pop up on the reservation.”

Laducer said the bank was capitalized with $3.8 million in private money. It opened its doors Dec. 3.

Larry Mandigo, the bank’s president, said the bank has had about 150 customers in its first month and has made vehicle loans. Some home and business loans are in the works, he said.

“We’re getting good, local participation,” Mandigo said.

Shelby Keplin, one of the bank’s tellers, said some customers have lugged in water jugs full of coins to deposit, and one man brought in a “suitcase full of money.”

“One five-gallon pail of coins had $2,200,” Keplin said. “Only 31 cents were pennies.”

Jollie, who owns a grocery and other businesses in Belcourt, said millions of dollars is circulated on the reservation each month but little of it stayed without a bank.

“We were lucky to have that money here for one day,” Jollie said. “There was no time for it to circulate in our community.”

The 2000 census put the reservation’s population at about 8,300, a 17 percent increase in 10 years. Tribal members say the population has grown to more than 15,000 and has been undercounted because a number of families live in the same home.

Laducer said about 70 percent of the people who live on the reservation are unemployed.

The U.S. has about 210 minority-owned banks, including 21 that are American Indian-owned, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

J.D. Colbert, president of the Denver-based Native American Bank, said banks owned by American Indians or tribes “is a concept within Indian Country that is very much embraced.”

He said it has helped American Indians learning about finances, and has boosted home and business ownership.

Colbert’s bank, which was founded in 2002, has branches in Montana and Alaska, and is owned by 26 Indian tribes, Alaska Native corporations and tribal organizations. He said the Belcourt bank likely is the only bank privately owned by American Indians.

“It’s groundbreaking,” he said.

Davis, one of the Belcourt bank’s owners, said tribal members often had difficulty getting loans from banks off the reservation.

“The other banks all the way around us don’t necessarily want to lend money over here,” he said. “If a new home is built, or new business does start, they want it to be built or started in their town.”

The bank’s owners said financing courses are now being taught in classrooms on the reservation, beginning in elementary school. The bank will help young people on the reservation practice what they’ve learned, Laducer said.

“We may be the key to unlocking poverty on the reservation,” he said. “I think we have all the ingredients.”

Lassond gave up working as a farmer to take jobs as a bartender and store clerk on the reservation.

She gave a bank clerk a $100 bill to start her new bank account.

“I got some extra money now – I might as well put some away and start a nest egg,” she said.

Her paperwork was completed within minutes, and she beamed as she was handed her little yellow bank book.

“This is mine,” she said, fighting back tears. “I’m proud of it.”