Promise Keeper

“Lakota from South Dakota” has returned home to fulfill the social contract she grew up with in her Native American community.

Author: Patrick Gallagher ’83

Lakota Vogel

The unincorporated Promise on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota is so rural that it doesn’t have a ZIP code.

“It’s an interesting concept to be a part of a community that doesn’t really have geographic boundaries, but you definitely know where it begins and ends,” says Lakota Mowrer Vogel ’06, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “You are a member of Promise by social contract.”

The rancher’s daughter has taken that contract to heart in her work. Returning to the reservation about a decade after high school, she’s now director of Four Bands Community Fund, a Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) based in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.

Working with Native communities that face a legacy of broken treaties and promises, Vogel says, “I am required to build relationships that redistribute power in order to unlock capital from systems designed to leave us out.”

Four Bands focuses on building sustainable small businesses and creating personal wealth in a market that includes the Cheyenne River Reservation and all Native Americans in South Dakota who are enrolled in a tribe. Established in 2000 and certified by the U.S. Department of the Treasury as a Native CDFI, Four Bands has assisted more than 11,000 customers, made over $26 million in business loans, and created or retained more than 1,000 jobs.

As director since 2016, Vogel advocates for her rural and Native American constituents in a “field where many voices have been left behind,” while breaking barriers herself “as a Native woman working in finance.”

During a walk on Eagle Butte’s Main Street, Vogel noted that most of the businesses had received Four Bands’ assistance. When we arrived at Kelsie Kay’s Coffee Depot, owner Kelsie Haskell shared her business story. She had wanted to open a coffee shop for years, but “there was no place to rent or buy.” In 2013 she went to Four Bands for assistance with her credit and personal finances, and got to know Vogel well.

“When you work with someone so long,” Haskell says, “you start to care on a personal level.”

Vogel echoes the sentiment: “We say it’s relationship lending.”

In 2019, when Vogel opened Four Bands’ new office building, which houses a business incubator with space for six entrepreneurs, Haskell opened her shop as one of the first tenants. She already knew where she wanted the permanent location to be, however. The long, narrow funeral home a couple blocks up Main Street was perfect.

When the owners decided to sell, Haskell called Vogel and got a Four Bands’ loan for the purchase and renovations. In August 2021, Haskell opened in the new space and now employs 11 people.

Lakota Vogel
Working with Native communities that face a legacy of broken treaties and promises, Vogel says, “I am required to build relationships that redistribute power in order to unlock capital from systems designed to leave us out.”

Four Bands also makes housing loans in a complicated market. Much Native American land is held in trust by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which must approve land transactions. Vogel uses a board game analogy to explain. “Colonized peoples in America,” she says, have “been invited to the Monopoly game decades, centuries later, and so all the best properties are bought up.”

Created without “our voices at the table,” the system didn’t anticipate financial products to leverage millions of acres of trust land, “because they just didn’t think of it.” As a result, Four Bands is the only lender on the reservation offering mortgages because large banks don’t see how to do it.

Watching over her newborn daughter, Skya Ducheneaux talked about getting her mortgage from Four Bands. Ducheneaux’s business, a Native CDFI that supports Native American agriculture nationwide, is a Four Bands incubator tenant. When she was ready to move out of the multigenerational home where she had been living, she turned to Four Bands for guidance through the home buying process.

“We had established a relationship and comfort I couldn’t get anywhere else. . . . I’m recommending Four Bands all the time. They meet clients where they’re at and help set them up for success.”

Compared to national averages, Native Americans on the reservation have about one-third of the level of higher education, two-thirds of the median household income, and more than one-and-a-half times the number living in poverty. “This is not coincidental,” she says. “These burdens are by design. We are the only peoples who have survived systemic, intentional and unnamed genocide at the hands of the United States government.”

Vogel, who studied sociology at Notre Dame and earned a master’s in social work focused on gerontology at Washington University in St. Louis, did not follow a direct route into finance. In fact, the Catholic girl from South Dakota did not follow a straight line to Notre Dame either, though her path to becoming a student foreshadowed the relationship-building that would define her later career.

While attending a weeklong college preparatory program in St. Louis for promising Native American students, Vogel wanted to keep her word to her mother and go to Mass. “I knew Notre Dame was Catholic,” she says, so she approached then-admissions director Bob Mundy ’76, ’81M.A., and they found a church together. The two stayed in touch and, over time, Mundy “convinced me about the school.”

Being a rare Native American at Notre Dame prompted introspection. After announcing, “I'm Lakota from South Dakota,” she would get questions for which she didn’t always have answers. “When you grow up in a certain environment, you don't realize how unique it is,” she says. “I would call home and ask Grandma questions that maybe a student or professor asked me. I wouldn’t have learned as much about myself if I didn’t expose myself to a different environment.”

Perhaps what she learned led her to speak up for the overlooked. As Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C., ’76, ’78M.A., prepared to ascend to the Notre Dame presidency, he met with multicultural student groups. Vogel, then president of the Native American Student Association, pointed out that the story of Notre Dame always begins with Fr. Sorin’s arrival, but she asked Jenkins not to forget the Native Americans who were living there before the Holy Cross priests came. “It was a courageous comment for me to make,” she remembers. “I was really nervous saying it, but he never made me feel like I’d overstepped.”

After college, she taught special education for Teach for America on South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation before earning her master’s in social work. A course on American Indian leadership in 2012 led her to the director of Four Bands, who hired her as assistant director. Vogel became director four years later.

She works to combat two intertwined misconceptions about rural and Native areas: “We don’t have money here” and “don’t want to work,” Vogel says, articulating views that hamper efforts to attract large employers. That creates a vicious cycle: difficulty bringing in businesses keeps people out of work, a persistent data point that reinforces companies’ reluctance to invest in the community.

“We have a high unemployment rate, and it’s not because people don’t want to work,” Vogel says. “You’ve just got to bring the industry here.”

Her twin ambitions: helping people fulfill their personal and professional ambitions, and changing external attitudes about Native peoples with a vision of inviting more investment.

“I have a saying,” she says. “How you perceive is how you proceed” — and “Lakota from South Dakota” is proceeding to change perceptions and fulfill the social contract that binds the too-often-overlooked people in communities like Promise.

Patrick Gallagher lives in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he works for a statewide foundation.