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March 19
Spirit of the Tongass: Providing Financial Services in Remote Alaska

In 2005, the only bank branch that served the Metlakatla Indian Community in Alaska closed. An island community only accessible by boat or float plane, Metlakatla was left without a way to easily access basic financial services. Community employees struggled to cash payroll checks through their Tribal government office, which typically ran out of cash well before the last person was served; likewise a local ATM machine would run out of cash within hours of being reloaded. There was a great need for a financial institution in the community.

Metlakatla turned to Tongass Federal Credit Union (Tongass FCU), a certified CDFI headquartered in Ketchikan, Alaska, a short floatplane ride away. The credit union had little experience with working with a Tribal community, but agreed to provide some financial services on the island. Tongass FCU began offering services once a week at the Metlakatla Indian Community council chambers in the summer of 2005. A few staff members flew over to the island and opened accounts and began transacting business for the new credit union members. Within a few months, the credit union was able to open an office in the old bank branch. Three part-time employees worked two hours a day, processing transactions on paper at first until computers were installed the following year.

Tongass FCU established a local advisory board for the Metlakatla branch, which helped the credit union develop and target its services to the community. Tongass FCU worked with the Metlakatla Indian Community and the local housing authority to provide home equity loans and home equity lines of credit on Metlakatla’s leased tribal lands. They also provided on-site tax assistance during filing seasons, collected utility payments, established youth savings programs, hosted financial education visits at the local high school, and provided other affordable financial services for the community. The credit union also commissioned a branch sign, “Spirit of the Tongass,” with the institution’s logo in both English and Sm’algyax, the language of the Metlakatla people.


Tongass Logo
The Tongass Federal Credit Union sign in Sm'algyax and English

 


The story of Tongass FCU demonstrates that financial institutions can be successful even under difficult circumstances if they are willing to work with the local community. “Many of the residents gave us a warm welcome,” said Helen Mickel, current Tongass FCU President and CEO, recounting stories of Metlakatla residents who shared artwork and gave tours of the island. She believes Tongass FCU’s local advisory board (now part of the Tongass FCU Community Corps), which listens and responds to the community, has been instrumental to their success.

In 2012, Tongass FCU completed a new branch building in Metlakatla. The new branch is staffed by six employees who are all from the Metlakatla Indian Community. As of August 2018, there were more than 1,200 Metlakatla Indian Community members of the credit union – 85 percent of the local population.

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