Keith Schubert/Daily Montanan

A coalition dedicated to improving economic development opportunities among Native Americans in Montana and the region received $45 million in grants — the largest donation in the history of the coalition — to grow the Indigenous finance sector.

Mountain | Plains Regional Native CDFI Coalition was one of 21 groups to receive a portion of the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge — an initiative that is part of the American Rescue Plan aiming to boost economic recovery from the pandemic, including communities that have experienced decades of disinvestment. The coalition is headed by the Four Bands Community Fund, Inc., and serves Indigenous communities in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

“It is amazing; it’s so unreal. I was honestly in shock,” said Sharon Small about receiving the grant money. Small is the executive director of People’s Partners for Community Development, located in Lame Deer, Montana, one of the nine coalition members.

Small said People’s Partners for Community Development will use their portion of the money to hire more staff and increase access to capital for Indigenous people of the Northern Cheyenne Nation.

The $45 million will be spread across five different programs largely aiming to provide financial investment to locally-led Indigenous businesses and entrepreneurs to enhance business development and job creation.

In its application, the coalition said the money will help strengthen three building blocks of economic development: governance and systems, both physical and non-physical infrastructure, and financial capital.

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“For too long, Native American communities in the region have been left behind. The Build Back Better Regional Challenge provides bold investments to transform these local economies and stand up a stronger, beneficial workforce that places the needs of the community and equity at the forefront,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo in a press release about the grant money.

Each of the 21 recipients of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, funded through the federal Economic Development Association, received from $25 million to $65 million; the money will be used to fund 123 projects throughout 24 states.

“EDA is proud to support the vision of the Four Bands Community Fund and its coalition partners,” said Alejandra Y. Castillo, assistant secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, in the press release. “This EDA investment supports a first-of-its kind, cohesive model for Native communities that will pave the path for transformative private investment in Tribal communities most in need.”