Chrystel Cornelius

Photo: Joshua Franzos

Chrystel Cornelius

Economy
27th Heinz Awards - 2022

A member of both the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Chrystel Cornelius receives the Heinz Award for the Economy for her work to return wealth and financial independence to Native lands and people, addressing centuries of disenfranchisement that have led to profound socioeconomic disparities for Native communities.  

Ms. 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, Ms. Cornelius worked as a tribal planner writing grants and finding resources for everything from nursing homes to wind energy development. Later, seeing the need for fair loans and wealth-building, she 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, Ms. Cornelius was named president and CEO of Oweesta Corporation, a Colorado-based CDFI intermediary which works to foster sustainable job creation, small business development, commercial real estate development and affordable housing/home ownership in Native American communities.  

Centuries of genocide, dispossession of land, redlining and disenfranchisement have led to persistent and profound socioeconomic disparities for 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.    

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. 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.

Photo: Joshua Franzos

Photo: Joshua Franzos

“We innately know that when armed with the appropriate resources, Native peoples hold the capacity and ingenuity to ensure the sustainable, economic, spiritual and cultural well-being of their communities.”

— Chrystel Cornelius

Videos

Chrystel Cornelius: How Native CDFI’s Transform Communities