Chrystel Cornelius, this year's Heinz Award recipient. (Photo submitted)

Chrystel Cornelius will receive the Heinz Award for the Economy, an unrestricted cash award of $250,000, for her work with financial resources and Native American communities. 

“Upon looking at the past recipients, I feel very, very honored to hold this award with individuals that have greatly changed society,” she said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “I feel totally humbled with this, completely honored, but I am very, very proud.”

Cornelius grew up on a reservation in rural North Dakota that is designated as a persistent

poverty area. Dedicated to the service of Native communities, Cornelius, who is a member of both the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, worked as a tribal planner writing grants and finding resources for everything from nursing homes to wind energy development.

Cornelius said growing up on the reservation in North Dakota shaped who she is today, and also helped her realize there are opportunities outside the 12-by-6 mile reservation. 

She later founded Turtle Mountain CDFI (community development financial institution), the first nonprofit on her reservation and one of the few Native CDFIs to provide loans to Native people who were too often victims of predatory lending.

 In 2011, Cornelius was named president and CEO of Oweesta Corporation, a Colorado-based CDFI intermediary offering financial products and development services exclusively to Native CDFIs and Native communities.

With a mission of returning wealth to Native lands and people in the form of small business support, home loans, job opportunities and more, Oweesta provides the financial tools, training and capital to empower and help Native people control their economic destinies. Oweesta loans provide financing capital for Native CDFIs and other tribal or nonprofit loan funds. While it does not lend directly to individual borrowers, it offers training and technical assistance, including financial education to Native communities and Native CDFIs.

“I feel very, very honored to be able to be in this position to be able to help hundreds of Native communities, either with capital or technical assistance to change the economic landscape of their respective communities,” she said. “I feel America has really forgotten the history of this country, but Natives never have.”

Over the past 20 years, Oweesta’s efforts have provided more than $60 million in loans and other

investments to more than 8,500 Native individuals. (Although Oweesta doesn’t provide loans directly to individuals, it provides loan capital to Native financial Institutions, who then lend to individuals or businesses.) Oweesta’s lending efforts have ultimately helped residents repair their credit, obtain loans to open new businesses and obtain assistance for home down payments. Oweesta has also certified thousands of trainers who have coached more than 40,000 community members in programs including its Building Native Communities curriculum. More recently, in 2021, Oweesta was designated a housing counseling intermediary by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to further increase homeownership on tribal lands.

The designation has “created more opportunities for home ownership in these really rural communities that are often disconnected from financial services,” said Kim O’Dell, director of the Heinz Award program, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. 

O’Dell said that while Cornelius’ work is rural, it spans the country, creating a large impact on communities, particularly Native communities. 

“It’s had an outsized impact that benefits many different rural areas and is tailored for the individuals in those communities throughout the country,” she added. 

Recipients of the 27th Heinz Awards will be honored at a virtual event in October. 

Other honorees include Hilary A. Abell and Alison Lingane, co-founders of Project Equity, Founded in 2014, Project Equity is a national leader in the movement to harness employee ownership to maintain thriving local economies, honor business owners’ legacies and reduce income and wealth inequality.

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