Top Native American Investment Professionals

These five have made an impact

Historically, Native Americans haven’t been represented in finance. There has been some movement, especially as tribes have looked to shore up their economic development. For example, the passing of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988 set up the path for Native American-owned gaming, which turned more tribal attention toward investing as a means of fiscal independence.

Still, Indigenous communities aren’t necessarily plugged into the investing world. Reviews of investors have found that they’re more likely to commit to including Indigenous people’s issues in their social investing than to implement those promises, though the negative risks of ignoring Indigenous issues are rising.

“This disconnect between philosophy and practice is emblematic of broader power and relational asymmetries between Indigenous Peoples and the private investment world,” write Nikki Pieratos and Chrystel Cornelius, two investing professionals covered below, who have recommended the use of Indigenous intermediaries to bridge the divide. Several of the people covered here have worked to serve as that bridge.

Key Takeaways

  • Contrary to the popular impression, many Native American tribes are struggling economically, especially since COVID-19.
  • The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 created a footpath for the Native American gaming industry, Since then, tribal communities have looked toward furthering investments in a wide variety of fields.
  • A number of Native American-led firms are working to spur economic development and build tribal sovereignty.

Nikki Pieratos

Executive Director, Tiwahe Foundation

Nikki Pieratos is a prominent figure in community-development finance, one who’s widely published on the issue.

Pieratos serves as the executive director of the Tiwahe Foundation, which offers grants with a focus on cultural revitalization, educational advancement, and entrepreneurship. The foundation—whose name is based on the Dakota word for family—describes itself as a community resource based on the idea of “a continuous cycle of success grounded in indigenous culture that recognizes that giving benefits both giver and receiver.”

Previously, Pieratos served as managing director of the NDN Collective, an advocacy group that aims to build Indigenous power by decolonizing and developing Native American communities, as well as fighting resource extraction.

Pieratos is a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and holds a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago.

Chrystel Cornelius

President and CEO, Oweesta Corp.

Chrystel Cornelius leads Oweesta Corp., which serves as an intermediary between Native American communities and the U.S. Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.

Cornelius is an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota.

In 2020, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) updated its definition of “accredited investor” to include “Indian tribes, governmental bodies, funds.”

Leonard Smith

CEO, Native American Development Corp.

Leonard Smith was involved in securing funding for the Tribal Leadership Council in Montana and Wyoming.

He founded Native American Development Corp., an intermediary for economic development organizations and Native American businesses. Smith serves as its CEO.

An enrolled member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribe of Fort Peck in Montana, Smith has also assisted organizations such as Native American Capital in vetting projects for investment.

Before COVID-19, Native American tribes watched their revenues grow significantly—mostly thanks to investments in industries like hospitality and gambling, according to one analysis. That made them financially vulnerable to the pandemic’s closures. In the aftermath, tribes are now looking to diversify, including a turn to venture capital and private equity investments.

Joseph L. Falkson

Senior Managing Director, Native American Capital

Joseph L. Falkson co-founded Native American Capital, a financial consultancy in Washington, D.C. The consultancy connects investors with Native American enterprises.

In his position as senior managing director, Falkson runs their tribal financial services consulting, connecting tribes to federal financing.


The percentage of philanthropic funding received by Indigenous communities, according to the nonprofits Candid and Native Americans in Philanthropy, a network of groups that invest in Indigenous communities. American Indians and Alaska Natives, alone and in combination with other races, constitute 9.7 million people, 2.9% of the U.S. population, according to analysis of 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data. The two groups alone have grown to 3.7 million people, 1.1% of the population.

Lynn Dee Rapp

Member, Board of Trustees, The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development

An enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Lynn Dee Rapp is on the board of trustees for The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, a nonprofit focused on facilitating tribal economic development.

Rapp is also on the board of the American Indian College Fund, which supports Native American students.

What is the Native American Venture Fund?

The Native American Venture Fund is an impact investing fund that works with Native American ventures. It describes its goal as providing the human and financial capital to take advantage of the public policies that exist to incentivize Native American enterprise.

What is the Native American Rights Fund?

The Native American Rights Fund is a registered nonprofit. Founded in 1970, it provides legal assistance to people, tribes, and organizations, especially on issues of tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, natural resource protection, and education, according to its website. It’s an important organization in the landscape affecting Native American investing and entrepreneurship.

Are Native American businesses exempt from U.S. federal taxes?

Yes, under some circumstances. According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), businesses formed under acts including the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act are exempt, while state-chartered businesses typically aren’t. Tribal taxation is a complex and fraught question, which complicates tax issues for businesses formed under tribal law.

The Bottom Line

Native Americans continue to face barriers to economic opportunity, including smaller networks in the investment community. Both tribes and individual Native Americans are building out development through increased use of investing. The investment professionals above are working to expand the financial security of Indigenous peoples.

Article Sources
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  1. American Economic Association. “The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and Its Effects on American Indian Economic Development.”

  2. National Indian Gaming Commission. “Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.”

  3. First Peoples Worldwide. “Investors and Indigenous Peoples: Trends in Sustainable and Responsible Investment and Free, Prior, and Informed Consent,” Page 18.

  4. Stanford Social Innovation Review. “Bridging the Divide Between Impact Investing and Native America.”

  5. The Harvard Gazette. “For Native Americans, COVID-19 Is ‘the Worst of Both Worlds at the Same Time’.”

  6. Tiwahe Foundation. “Nikki Pieratos, Executive Director.”

  7. Northwest Area Foundation. “The Tiwahe Foundation: Growing an Endowment Toward the Art of Reciprocity.”

  8. Tiwahe Foundation. “About Tiwahe Foundation.”

  9. NDN Collective. “Our Mission.”

  10. Oweesta Corp. “Products and Services Guide,” Pages 5 and 11 (Pages 3 and 6 of PDF).

  11. Oweesta Corp. “Chrystel Cornelius.”

  12. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “SEC Modernizes the Accredited Investor Definition.”

  13. Montana Community Foundation. “Leonard Smith.”

  14. Native American Development Corp. “Our Staff.”

  15. Native American Capital. “Management Team.”

  16. JD Supra. “Native American Tribes—Trends in Alternative Investments.”

  17. Native American Capital. “Joseph L. Falkson, Senior Managing Director.”

  18. Investing in Native Communities. “Building Equity for Native Communities.”

  19. U.S. Census Bureau. “Improved Race and Ethnicity Measures Reveal U.S. Population Is Much More Multiracial.”

  20. Investing in Native Communities. “Native 101.”

  21. Indian Country Today. “2020 Census: Native Population Increased by 86.5 Percent.”

  22. The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. “New Board Members Will Help Guide the National Center in 2020 and Beyond.”

  23. Native American Venture Fund, via Internet Archive. “About NAVF.”

  24. Native American Rights Fund. “About Us.”

  25. Internal Revenue Service. “Is an Incorporated Business Owned by a Tribe Subject to Federal Income Taxation?

  26. U.S. Joint Economic Committee. “Native American Communities Continue to Face Barriers to Opportunity That Stifle Economic Mobility.”