By Sam Lungren with Photos & Multimedia by Nick Gast
The floor manager ignites the blackened end of a braid of sweetgrass then deftly extinguishes the flame. Thick smoke spirals after his hand, wafting a thin but sharp scent over the cubicles.
“I give thanks to the creator for the gift of another day,” says Clyde Brown, his voice soft and rumbling.
His dark, commanding eyes sweep the faces of the seven employees watching him. It’s early, an April morning.
“I give thanks for my life and my children and my loved ones.”
The current unemployment rate on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation is 67.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
He is standing in the call center of Plain Green Loans, a venture that offers online, high interest loans.
“I pray that this place succeeds.”
By all accounts, the fledgling business — illegal in most places outside the Rocky Boy’s Reservation — has done just that.
“I pray that it provides for our families, that it puts food in our stomachs and roofs over our heads.”
The sweetgrass braid still smoldering, Brown walks to the man sitting in the next cubicle, letting the smoke drift over him. The man takes two fingers and smudges ash on his forehead. He closes his eyes and inhales, moving his lips slightly. The man looks up and smiles, Brown steps next to the woman to the left, who prays in her own manner.
On this goes, clockwise around the room until every employee has been blessed.
Brown sits back down at his desk, blots the remaining embers from the sweetgrass braid and clicks on the wide, split-screen computer monitors before him. More computers fire up, headsets go on and another day has begun at the loan center on Rocky Boy’s Reservation — an unlikely business in an even more unlikely location.
As sovereign nations answering only to federal law, Native American tribes have long pushed the boundaries of surrounding state and local laws by offering goods and services illegal off the reservation – gaming and firework sales being obvious examples.
In 2011, the Chippewa Cree tribe’s creative capitalism evolved into another market: financial lending.
With the blessing of the tribal council, tribal members Billi Anne Raining Bird-Morsette and Neal Rosette Sr. started Plain Green Loans last April. In the year since, they have made thousands of short-term, high-interest loans all online. Profits are already into the millions.
“This has been great for our tribe,” said Raining Bird-Morsette, who is now the CEO. “Ninety percent of our employees were struggling before they got the job.”
All but two of Plain Green’s 21 employees are Chippewa Cree, making the company one of the largest employers on Rocky Boy’s. After an upcoming round of hiring, they hope to employ more than 40.
About half of the enrolled Chippewa Cree tribal members reside on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation in northcentral Montana, 20 miles south of Havre. These 3,400 residents live on the small chunk of high plains rising into the pine-strewn Bear’s Paw Mountains, more commonly know as the Bear Paws. Jobs there are often seasonal and scarce.
From the last labor force estimate, Tanya Marie Schmockel, the tribe’s grant writer and planning assistant, calculates the unemployment rate at 71 percent. However, she said the data was taken during the summer when the workforce is at its highest. Some estimate that unemployment may reach 80 percent in the winter, when construction and other outdoor industries end with the onset of the harsh northern Montana weather.
“I worked the oil fields in North Dakota before. Good money, but it’s a young man’s job and I’m going to be 42 here in a couple weeks,” Plain Green Verification Representative Paul Gopher said. “I got pneumonia and had to come home. No more working outdoors braving the elements.”
After starting last August, Gopher has risen to the No. 2 position for the morning shift.
“I enjoy going to work,” Gopher said. “It’s not out in the freezing cold or 90-degree heat. What I enjoy most is the people. We have good crew. There’s a bunch of us working who wouldn’t be otherwise.”
Beyond being a salve for the chronic underemployment, Raining Bird-Morsette says she hopes the venture will help create some self-sufficiency for what is one of the smallest reservations in Montana. The tribe wholly owns Plain Green, so all profits go to a board of directors to be distributed among the tribal departments and the larger community.
Paul Gopher, Plain Green Verification Representative
Those profits have not been insignificant. Large posters line the call center walls broadcasting the monthly revenue numbers. The sequence begins at $10,000. It climbs quickly to $99,570.56, and up to $232,111.36 four months later.
“(Plain Green is) doing lots of good things for the tribe,” Gopher said. For instance, he said, tribal members received a $150 stipend at Christmas last year. “That was due largely to Plain Green and the money we generated,” Gopher said.
More than $3 million in profit has already been funneled into the Rocky Boy’s Reservation. The five-member board of directors (three council members and two community members) has put those funds to use in the form of infrastructure, housing, healthcare, recreational facilities, scholarships, field trips and community events. A certain percentage is also being reinvested in the business.
Nearly everyone was caught off-guard by how well Plain Green has done right out of the gate.
“At this point they’ve exceeded those projections and doing quite well,” said Tribal Councilman Ted Whitford. “I mean I’ve never seen a business take off like this and be so successful in a short period of time.”
Whitford sits on several tribal boards including the Chippewa Cree Business Committee, the tribal governing body, the Community Development Corporation and Plain Green Loans. He credits the runaway success of the lending venture first to the tribe itself. Specifically, “An aggressive tribe, aggressive board, people working together.”
But the No. 1 factor, he said, is Think Finance, the tribe’s associate. It is a financial firm out of Fort Worth, Texas that both operates and contracts with online lending companies.
“(Think Finance) came in with their portfolio, their customers,” Whitford said. “It was a mature portfolio that we brought in.”
Think Finance Chief Executive Officer Ken Rees explained that though the company helped set up the Chippewa Cree operation, the tribe wholly owns and operates Plain Green Loans and simply contracts with Think Finance for technical assistance and use of their banking software platform.
Whitford said that because of the widespread state crackdowns on the payday loan businesses — so far 42 states have enacted laws eliminating or placing strict regulations on high interest loan companies — outfits like Think Finance shifted to working with sovereign Indian tribes, where the same rules do not apply.
“So that was their avenue of continuing their business,” Whitford said. “It helps us both out.”
Clyde Brown, the call center floor manager, split time growing up between Rocky Boy’s and Great Falls.
“It was a good childhood, it was good to be up here and be a boy,” Brown said. “There is nothing better than being in the country where you experience fishing, camping, hunting, horseback riding, things like the Powwow, Sun Dance, Round Dance.”
However, like many young Native Americans, the isolated reservation started feeling small.
“It was hard to find a job. It was hard to get on my feet because of a lot of reasons,” Brown said. “I was young. And I was getting in trouble — drinking and fighting. Just partying too much, really. I was supposed to be in school and I did more partying than I did school.”
Alcohol is banned on Rocky Boy’s. After he got arrested for related charges “a handful of times,” Brown decided he had to leave.
He moved to Phoenix to join his sister, find work and try to turn his life around. He ended up staying for 13 years, working several customer service supervisory jobs. He also met Misha, the Navajo woman who would eventually become his wife. Then came their son, Mateo.
“I kind of grew up down there and matured down there,” Brown said. “It was helpful. That time in the city made me realize that I had to work for whatever I wanted.”
Things were going smoothly until the economic crash hit Arizona hard in 2008.
“It got bad down there for a while. I think I went a year and a half with no work,” Brown said.
Out of options, he applied for a job with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC in Montana, and last February, flew home to prepare for the interview. It was Brown’s first time back to Rocky Boy’s in over a decade.
Brown’s very presence commands attention. A calm, deliberate demeanor coupled with a shaved head and a 6-foot-4, linebacker frame, it’s easy to see why supervisory roles suit him. Plain Green had not yet opened its digital doors, but Brown heard about the verification supervisor position, applied and was given the job.
“I’m a spiritual person,” Brown said. “I think this was meant to be, everything that happened and brought me back home.”
Though some are skeptical of Plain Green’s methods, Brown is all too familiar with the circumstances that would bring people to a high interest loan company.
“Living in Arizona, I had to take these high-interest loans out and it helped me when I needed it,” he said. “So if it helps people when they need it and we do everything by the rules, I have no problem being a part of that.”
Others do have a problem with short-term, high-interest lending, however. Governments have generally not been favorable toward the practice (often known as payday lending, a term the Chippewa Cree reject). Aside from the 42 states that have regulated or eliminated the practice, Montana voters in 2010 passed Initiative 164, which set an interest rate cap at 36 percent.
Plain Green, on the other hand, adds an extra decimal place to its highest introductory annual percentage rate – up to 379 percent.
For example, a $1,000 loan from Plain Green carries a 299.17 percent rate, and can be paid off in 24 biweekly payments of $124.16. In this scenario, and according to Plain Green’s website, that borrower of $1,000 will end up paying back $2,979.84.
In contrast, “payday” loan interest rates, which are set on schedules a fraction the length of Plain Green plans, are as high as 600 percent.
Out of respect for the inevitable I-164 litigation, Plain Green does not lend to Montana residents.
Republican State Sen. Dave Lewis was among the supporters of payday lending bill.
“The people who were making use of it were probably the people who could least afford the interest rate,” Lewis said. “Their argument was that it was the only place they could get money but I never really bought that. I think that if you had any credit at all you could go to a credit union and get short-term loans. The people who could least afford it were paying this 300 percent. It just seemed crazy to me.”
However, Lewis stops short of condemning the Chippewa Cree for their venture into the market.
“They are a tribe. They can do anything they want. That’s the bottom line. I don’t think it is a good idea but I don’t have the right to tell them what to do or not to do. The tribes are independent nations. So, good luck to them. There will be some problems, but that is their business.”
Raining Bird-Morsette however, is insistent Plain Green is filling an important niche. She said there are many people who simply cannot get emergency funds fast enough through traditional outlets.
“Who can just walk in to a bank and get $500?” Raining Bird-Morsette said. “It’s for emergencies, whether that is a car repair or a medical bill or whatever. A lot are just working people who hit a rough spot.”
To counter the bad press and F-rating from the Better Business Bureau, the administration team is working diligently to establish a regulatory framework and best practices for the business, as well as forming the Native American Lending Alliance (NALA) with the handful of other tribes in the market. The hope is that the more organized, ethical and legitimate the business appears, the less likely legislation will be passed against it.
The Better Business Bureau that serves Montana does not accredit any sort of online lending business, according to Kris Byrum, the lead investigator for the office. However, through diligence, more time in business and responding to their five outstanding complaints, Plain Green certainly could earn themselves an ‘A’ rating, Byrum said.
“We would like a business to respond, no matter how ridiculous a complaint may be,” Byrum said.
Raining Bird-Morsette said that Plain Green is trying very hard to meet the bureau’s standards in the hope of improving their grade.
“We take all complaints very seriously. We respond as quickly as possible,” she said. “But when you compare the number of complaints to the number of loans we have given, that is a very small portion of our customers.”
Bobbi Favel is the Plain Green compliance officer and charged with dealing with complaints and establishing the regulatory ground rules.
“A lot of people are not educated enough to understand what it is we are doing here,” Favel said. “In the past, the whole payday lending deal has gotten a bad rap and that is not exactly what we do here. We do installment loans. I’ve heard the misconceptions about predatory lending and I think that we try to portray ourselves as a viable business on the Internet.”
The distinction they draw between “payday” and “installment” loans is the time allowed to repay. Payday loans generally must be paid off within two weeks. With the installment loans offered by Plain Green, the borrower returns via bi-weekly payments, for up to several months — a big difference in the minds of the Chippewa Cree.
At the end of a day packed with supervising the call center, Clyde Brown leaves the Plain Green office in Box Elder and drives up through Rocky Boy Agency, deeper into the Bear’s Paw Mountains to his home in a small valley. Misha, Mateo, their newborn daughter Bailey and his three Jack Russell terriers are waiting for him.
“I was raised just like any other boy, digging outside or fishing and I wanted that for my son but you can’t do that in the city,” Brown says “Here I can let him discover for himself, the mountains and stuff like that. I definitely wanted to bring my family back but I just didn’t know how or what the circumstances were going to be.”
As the sun begins to vanish past the broad plains to the west, Brown walks across the yard and enters a small garage. Chairs, towels and miscellaneous garage clutter are scattered about, but what dominates the room is a large, tan colored dome, approximately four feet tall and 10 feet wide. Brown ducks his tall frame in through a doorway in the dome, kneels on the rugs and carpet strewn about inside, and prepares a fire around the pile of large stones in the center of his sweat lodge. He places a braid of sweetgrass in the flames and walks back to the house.
“Plain Green has offered me a lot financial wise, stability,” he says. “It gave me confidence to know that I could rely on this company to put food on the table and a roof over my family’s heads. This job let me come home.”
This June, Brown plans to finally complete the Chippewa Cree rite of passage: fast alone for four-days and four-nights on top of Mt. Baldy.
“It is to become a man,” he says. “I didn’t do it when I was 14 and I believe that is why I have had so much bad luck growing up.”
Half an hour later, the stones are red-hot and friends, family and neighbors start to show up.
“This is where we come to believe,” Brown says, prepping for the sweat. “This is a place for us to give thanks and to pray and to ask for blessings, just like anybody else’s church. We come to cry, we come to laugh. For any reason, especially to give thanks for what we got.”
A group of eight has now assembled. Crouched over, they pile into the lodge one by one and sit in a circle around the stones. Brown ducks in last, pulling down the thick wool blanket over the entrance as he goes.
His dark, commanding eyes sweep the faces watching him.
“I give thanks to the creator for the gift of another day,” he says solemnly, and ladles a splash of water on the stones, sending a flood of fierce heat throughout the lodge.