August 2014

Growing Financial Independence at Ohkay Owingeh


Drew Tulchin


Northern New Mexico has long been one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest states in the United States. Compounding this, Native American people statistically have been at the bottom of earned-income indicators. Fortunately, there is a bright spot coming out of the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh, just north of Española: Cha Piyeh, Inc., or CPI.

Cha Piyeh means “lending money” in Tewa. CPI is a nonprofit, mission-based lender, incorporated in 2009. CPI provides affordable loans, financial education and financial empowerment. The organization currently serves enrolled members of Ohkay Owingeh and their families. “We are here to help people with their financial needs and shortfalls,” says Rose Marquez, CPI’s director. CPI’s staff consists of Marquez and loan officer Cindy Ortiz.

Marquez says she was drawn to this work to help her neighbors. “When I heard about the interest rates tribal members were paying, it felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I would really like to see a law to cap interest rates in New Mexico. We need more financial resources in rural areas. Those populations are in most need of assistance.”

An affordable mortgage over 20 years can save thousands of dollars in interest, compared to payday loans, where Native people have faced predatory and usurious practices. “When people around here have trouble making ends meet, they often go to payday lenders, especially towards the end of the month,” Marquez said. “Most of our tribal members don’t realize how high the interest rates are—often above 100 percent APR.” People commonly get stuck in a cycle, borrowing regularly from payday lenders as a gap solution, living paycheck to paycheck.

CPI is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), a designation provided by the U.S. Treasury ( There are now nearly 1,000 CDFIs throughout the United States. The New Mexico Loan Fund, ACCION, and WESST are three in New Mexico that predominantly serve small businesses and nonprofits. As a Native American institution, CPI joins Native Community Finance, which began in the Pueblo of Laguna, and Navajo Partnership for Housing in serving Native people in New Mexico.

CPI offers five loan products: home refinance, home rehabilitation, youth credit opportunity, signature loans and, now, mortgage loans. The organization has made more than 90 loans to date.

Melanie (Lori) Sedillo lives with her boyfriend and their poodle at Ohkay Owingeh. She received a small CPI loan in June. Like all of the 1,600 members living on the reservation, Melanie was preparing for the annual feast days to celebrate the tribe’s patron saints. As a tribal member, if you are not dancing in the historic pueblo plaza, you are feeding people in your home all day. To do this well costs money, which Melanie did not have on hand.

During the application process, Melanie met with CPI’s staff, who explained the process, provided some financial education and helped her develop a budget. In addition to ensuring that the loan can be paid back, this process helps clients manage their resources. CPI requires financial literacy classes, a new concept to many applicants. The staff teaches clients about the financial system and their personal financial history. For many, this is an empowering step. Marquez explained that she has been able to reach people to the point that they really understand and can control they own money. “I like helping people” she said. “It is great when clients tell me ‘thank you’ for helping them move toward a more secure financial future and I see the clarity in their eyes.”

Melanie would not have been able to get a loan from a bank. Her credit report had no score. This wasn’t because she was a bad credit risk; it was just that she didn’t have formal credit experience. CPI offers rates and monthly payments within the clients’ repayment abilities. One repayment requirement is automatic payroll deduction. Melanie had an account at a local credit union but had never used online banking. She set up a recurring payment online. Through this, CPI was able to show Melanie’s family how to better use the formal banking system and help Melanie stay on track to build good credit. She paid off the loan on time in six months. Today, Melanie has established and follows a monthly budget. She doesn’t have Internet at home but wants to take a computer class and to be able to pay other bills online. CPI has a computer at its office to help clients do this.

As Cha Piyeh, Inc. reports to the credit bureaus, the organization is helping build income, wealth and assets in Indian Country. CPI operates on a modest annual budget and does a lot with very little. The majority of its funding has come from an initial grant from the Department of the Treasury. As a nonprofit 501(c)(3), the organization can accept donations online. For more information, call 505.852.1628 or visit


Drew Tulchin is managing partner of Social Enterprise Associates.




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