by Kim Baca

As the students step up to receive their money, their eyes grow as big as quarters as they are given $30,000 in cash. Soon they start buying houses, vehicles, rent an apartment, food or get things for daily life.

Ah, I lost my truck,” says one student who had his vehicle repossessed after he missed two payments, forgot that he had an insurance bill looming, and already paid rent and bought groceries for the month.

Although this is just a game for these New Mexico high school students the scenario often happens among millennials and older adults in real life. That’s why a reservation lender, business and tribal leaders, and the federal government have come together to help people avoid these pitfalls.

Tiwa Lending Services, the Pueblo of Isleta, the Office of Special Trustee and the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico (AICCNM) sponsored the Native American Youth Empowerment Symposium on March 27, an event combining career and scholarship information, as well as financial literacy, just ahead of National Financial Literacy Month in April.

Tiwa Lending Services (TLS), a community development financial institution that assists Isleta Pueblo members with low-interest credit builder or home loans, created the youth gathering in 2016 focusing on financial literacy after seeing tribal members applying for loans without full knowledge of monetary tools or the importance of good credit. The AICCNM joined as a partner in 2017, bringing business and educational representatives to promote, motivate and encourage networking, leadership and entrepreneurship.

About 150 Jicarilla Apache, Navajo and Pueblo students from Bernalillo, Dulce, Jemez Valley, and Los Lunas high schools and nearby Albuquerque attended the event at the Isleta Resort and Casino to learn about budgeting, savings and investing during the Spending Frenzy game. Students also heard about careers in tech, media, film and what it takes to be an entrepreneur, in addition to educational opportunities.

Keynote speaker Tony Dearman, a member of the Cherokee Nation and director of the Bureau of Indian Education, encouraged students to face their fears, make mistakes and get away from what he called “stinking thinking,” a negative attitude. Dearman says he doesn’t watch TV or engage in social media and lists to motivational speeches in the morning to set a positive tone for the day to have “good going in and good coming out.”

The problems you have today are training you for tomorrow,” he said. “…Be a problem-solver and not a problem finder.” 

And good financial planning will also help students get to where they want to go in life, said Sheila Herrera, Tiwa Lending Services Executive Director.

“They don’t teach this in high schools,” she said. “…(Students) need to know to stay away from credit cards and learn that credit scores can also affect getting a job.” 

Herrera, a former Title escrow officer and senior loan officer, teaches financial literacy, including information on insurance, retirement and investments, in the Pueblo as part of her program’s community outreach. Since financial education programs have been taught in Isleta, residents have taken out loans to buy two homes, remodelled several houses and build 36, and no residents have defaulted on their loans.

As part of the program, Tiwa Lending Services also encourages tribal members to start a retirement savings like a Roth IRA, which can be created at the age of 18 with $25, and ask for discounts or negotiate with sales persons, especially on large ticket items.

Herrera said parents could also be good resources for their children before they take out too much in student loans or build up excessive credit card debt.

Isaiah Jojola, 16, a sophomore at Los Lunas High School who is from Isleta Pueblo, said he’s learned a lot about finances from his family and did well at the Spending Frenzy game. While some of his friends spend all their money, Isaiah had cash left over after buying a truck, full coverage insurance and rented an apartment. He said watched and listened to his parents talk about household expenses and how not to be wasteful.

Through the game he said he learned what it meant to take risks with money and “to carefully examine what you do now is going to affect you later in life,” he said.

Russell Pedro, AICCNM Business Development Specialist, noted that it was an honour to join forces with Tiwa Lending Services, the Pueblo of Isleta and the groups’ community partners from across the state “to bridge the gap between our future and current youth, and our tribal leadership, small businesses, financial institutions, scholarship departments and academic communities to showcase the many great examples and resources that they can turn to for help along their professional and academic journeys.”

When you find your passion, make a difference and be a voice in your community don’t forget our religion, our ceremonies, our dances and our prayers,” Pedro said, encouraging young people to learn from each other and listen to other points of view. “Above all else, remember where you come from and who we are as Native people. Listen with your mind, heart and soul.”