Published December 1, 2016
SANTA ANA PUEBLO – Virginia Spencer remembers when an idea to create a public risk management pool, communal funding that would cover such claims as fire or flood for the tribal housing units across the nation, was being floated.
“We had six months,” said Spencer, who was the executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council (NAIHC) at the time. NAIHC, a nonprofit organization located in Washington, D.C, provides congressional Indian and public housing updates, housing authority training and advocacy on behalf of tribes in Indian Country. “Everybody was enthused. We came together from all parts of Indian Country and we didn’t know each other all that well. But there was so much dedication to having this happen.”
In 1986, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) informed NAIHC and the more than 200 tribal housing authorities that their commercial insurer was no longer going to provide coverage because it was just too costly. Left with few options, Spencer, the board of directors, and members of NAIHC began looking into the self-insurance model similar to what school districts and other public agencies had done so that claims could be covered among the entities themselves.
Within six months, Spencer and NAIHC board members researched the laws to create a Native housing risk management organization, and cobbled together $18 million with the help of 200 tribes. The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and Santa Ana Pueblo became the sponsoring tribes. After finding a financial manager, they submitted a bid to HUD, which received only one other bid from a commercial insurer at $30 million.
“We saved the government $12 million,” said Spencer, who has spent more than 20 years working in Indian housing. “It was a very exciting time. I worked with some very professional people. HUD helped us along the way.”
The public risk management pool that grew out of the need to provide affordable, accessible claims coverage to tribal housing authorities is now celebrating 30 years. AMERIND Risk continues to be the nation’s only 100-percent owned tribal insurance solutions provider, tailoring each package to needs of tribes from coast to coast, the high plains to the desert, to the Pacific Ocean and tundra.
“Our success is based on the faith of our founders, tribes, our loyal members and customers, and new clients who enjoy our services, sound financial decisions, and our dedicated employees,” said AMERIND CEO Derek Valdo. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without their input and feedback to build a sustainable organization that continues to be Native-strong.”
Since its humble beginnings as the first multimillion dollar public risk management pool created under Indian law to cover 55,000 tribal housing units in 1986, AMERIND Risk now insures 75,000 properties in more than 500 Native communities.
“AMERIND’s vision is to be here as long as tribes need us,” said Valdo of Acoma Pueblo.
During some of the biggest catastrophes in Indian Country, including a fire that destroyed 93 percent of the La Jolla Reservation in Southern California or fierce windstorms in Oklahoma, AMERIND has provided immediate assistance to families with support within a few days, which is sometimes unheard of in the commercial insurance industry.
More than two decades ago, AMERIND began providing coverage to individual homeowners and renters living on tribal lands. The Native American Homeowners and Renters Program covers mobile homes, adobe-style houses, hogans and other traditional homes.
“We encourage everyone on our reservation to get insurance, and get insured with AMERIND. We’ve had an amazing history with AMERIND,” said Adam Geisler, secretary of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians near San Diego. “They had a check with us in literally a week when our homes were damaged … Those who weren’t insured with AMERIND had insurance adjusters that would tack on any kind of fee and basically hold you hostage.”
In the 2000s to meet the specific needs of tribes, AMERIND launched employee benefits, workers’ compensation, and property and liability coverage for tribal governments and businesses. Customers range from large casinos with 500 employees or more to tribal governments with 50 employees or less, including new businesses on tribal lands.
Geisler, who is also co-owner of U.S. Modular, said when he started doing research to obtain workman’s comp to cover part-time employees for his new general contracting business he couldn’t find anything comparable in conventional insurance.
“We did an estimation of how much labor was anticipated for a contract and how long the guys would work … AMERIND beat the other insurers by 60 percent,” he said. “From an Indian-owned business doing projects on Indian land from a start-up prospective, they were a no-brainer. They provided an affordable way to meet the requirements to do business.”
In addition to providing solid service, the organization believes in education and community investment. More than 20 years ago, in an effort to try to cut down the large amount of house fires and death resulting from fire, AMERIND launched a poster contest to help children and their families with safety education. One thousand dollars is awarded to three students with the best picture and safety message annually. The organization also sponsors the Annual AMERIND All-West Native American Basketball tournament, drawing 1,400 youth every March. The firm also awards $45,000 annually among nine regional housing authorities, which set its own scholarship application criteria and select scholarship recipients.
In 2006, AMERIND held its first Protecting Tribal Families golf fundraising tournament to aid families in Indian Country who lacked housing insurance and suffered catastrophic losses. More than $100,000 has been raised with the event. The 12th annual tournament will be held April 28th at the Santa Ana Golf Club and will benefit the family fund, National Indian Child Welfare Association and the NB3 Foundation. The organization also has awarded nearly $3 million to tribal organizations just in the past decade as a way to reinvest in communities that have supported their journey.
“I can’t believe our small tribal start-up turned out to be such a successful tribal unified contributor to Indian Country,” Spencer said. “It was great that AMERIND hired Native Americans to serve within the organization. It was designed by tribes to serve tribes, truly as the motto says: Tribes Protecting Tribes.
“It grew beyond what my visions were and there have been many others who have contributed to AMERIND’s success along the way,” she said.