2023 Indigenous Communities Fellowship



Totem is creating a new tradition of Native wealth-building through digital banking.

Team Lead

Amber Buker

Solution Overview & Team Lead Details

Our Organization

Totem Technologies, Inc.

What is the name of your solution?


Provide a one-line summary of your solution.

Totem is creating a new tradition of Native wealth-building through digital banking.

What specific problem are you solving?

Native Americans are unbanked at a higher rate than any other racial/demographic group according to the FDIC’s 2019 How America Banks survey. 

This prevents Native people from participating fully in the modern economy, costs our people money that puts us at a disadvantage, and makes it much more difficult and expensive for tribal governments to disburse benefits and other payments effectively.

Totem is the only digital bank by and for indigenous people, and we’re designed to address those hardships and more by removing barriers to financial services. We believe our work meets the criteria for the 2023 Indigenous Communities Fellowship challenge of promoting economic opportunity in indigenous communities.

Totem understands the systemic inequities indigenous people face in the financial system, and we’re building solutions to help correct them: 

  • Natives travel 3x further to get to a bank than other Americans, but have 96% smartphone adoption. So we built a mobile bank, complete with a network of cash solutions at popular retail chains. Our solution has all the features of a modern fintech — 2-day early paycheck access, virtual and physical cards, mobile wallet compatibility, etc. — combined with custom content designed to help our users connect to Native culture and benefits.  

  • Natives who are unbanked pay 24x what banked Americans do in fees and interest because we're forced to use predatory financial services in lieu of banks. Totem has created a model that enables us to eliminate monthly fees and minimum balances and provide fee-free ATMs, closing this aspect of the racial wealth gap. 

  • Natives are more likely to be credit invisible, so the next major product we’re rolling out is a credit-builder card. This product will help our customers safely engage with credit, ultimately becoming mortgage-worthy so that we can tackle the homeownership gap together, as a stronger community. 

  • Native homeownership rates are 15-30% lower than those for white households. In the future, Totem wants to help close that gap. We believe our national distribution and specialized focus can help us become a leading provider of Native mortgages, by helping our customers utilize programs like HUD Section 184. Our goal is to flip the current 56% Native homeownership rate to 65%, creating a new tradition of Native wealth-building.

Along the way, Totem is providing culturally relevant financial and benefit-related content. This helps our users access the benefits, programs, and organizations that can help them build both financial and cultural wealth.

What is your solution?

Totem’s digital banking solution is optimized to help unbanked or underbanked individuals onboard to FDIC-insured bank accounts. 

  • Open an account on your smartphone in less than 3 minutes. No minimum funding amount required. 

  • No account minimums, no monthly fees

  • Accounts are FDIC insured through our partner bank

  • Get a virtual debit card immediately while you wait for the physical one to arrive in the mail

  • 60k surcharge free ATMs in retail locations through Allpoint

  • Deposit cash and checks at major retailers through GreenDot

  • Send money to other Totem customers for free

  • Add your Totem card to a mobile wallet 

  • Automatically switch your direct deposit

  • Get 2-day early paycheck access (for direct deposit customers)

  • Resources tab featuring searchable information on federal benefit programs and community resources for Native Americans.

  • Totem shares a portion of its interchange revenue with its partner tribes, keeping money in the Native community longer. 

Our Stash Cash goal-based savings feature is scheduled to drop in Q3 2023, followed by the credit-builder card. Lending will come later in the roadmap. We’re currently exploring regulatory and other opportunities to source low-cost loan origination. 

In addition to our consumer-facing offerings, Totem plans to give tribes the opportunity to offer our accounts under their own brands. The white-label offering enables tribes to control the Resources section for the app to highlight their Nation’s programs and offerings. White-label tribes are also able to send push notifications to their members through the app. This offering gives tribes a relevant digital offering that can double as a channel for member engagement.

After the white-label program is launched, Totem plans to move into benefit disbursements for the tribe. This disbursements project will pave the way for our entry into enterprise payroll disbursements for tribally owned enterprises. 

Totem wants to facilitate the movement of tribal payments into the accounts of members and employees so that, when those stakeholders use the card, a piece of that revenue goes back to the tribe. This creates a virtuous cycle of keeping money in the Native community. 

Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?

Totem serves indigenous people in the United States, who are unbanked at the highest rate of any racial/demographic group in the country. By providing safe, free accounts to people who might not otherwise have access to banking services, we’re freeing Native people from the unjust fees and interest rates that they would incur if they remained unbanked. 

In addition, we’re providing an approachable solution designed to give Natives a custom platform for engaging with the modern economy. Our users are able to leverage virtual cards, mobile wallets, card controls, payments, direct deposit, early paycheck access, and more to take control of their financial lives. In addition, we feature lots of financial literacy content in our app and newsletter. 

Totem is designed to be intuitive for users of all ages and tribes. But we tend to speak most directly to younger Natives who want digital solutions to manage their money. Often, they’re searching for ways to connect to their Native heritage. They crave an alternative to big commercial banks and do/would patronize businesses that support their tribe. 

Our market loves the idea of Totem because we’re the only bank connecting our customers to their tribes. 

Which Indigenous community(s) does your solution benefit? In what ways will your solution benefit this community?

Totem is built by and for Natives, based on research and insights into the lived experience of our audience. From the beginning, Totem has incorporated community feedback into our roadmap and feature planning. 

We’ve run multiple digital survey/concept tests with Native folks who might benefit from Totem via Facebook and an initiative with the Ronnie K. Irani Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth at the University of Oklahoma.

To deepen our customer-centric approach, Totem brought on a Chief Design Officer trained in conducting customer research as one of our earliest hires. She has conducted numerous conversations and research efforts with potential users to uncover their financial habits and needs. 

We also make it a point to gather feedback at community events like powwows and Native holiday markets where potential users strike up conversations about their finances, tribal benefits and more. 

How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

Our founders and leadership team are a part of the communities we’re trying to serve. 67% of our team is indigenous, and the idea for Totem came out of our own, personal experiences trying to navigate finances and tribal benefits as modern indigenous people.

Our founder and CEO is a former attorney who spent the last several years advising bank CEOs on technology. It was her experience trying to access her own tribal benefits, combined with her exposure to the fintech industry, that resulted in the creation of Totem. 

Our Co-Founder and CTO, Richard Chance, is a self-taught developer and member of the Cherokee Nation. He has built for library systems, trucking companies — even American Express. And now he's excited to have the opportunity to build something meaningful for our people. Richard is a strong proponent of ICWA as the caretake for his kin's children, and passionate about helping more Natives find careers in tech.

In addition to our formal leadership, Totem has assembled a large group of Native advisors who are influential in the fields of finance, real estate, technology, and more. We regularly call on these advisors for guidance in addition to the customer research described above. 

Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

Support the creation, growth, and success of Indigenous-owned businesses and promote economic opportunity in Indigenous communities.

In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?


What is your solution’s stage of development?

Pilot: An organization testing a product, service, or business model with a small number of users

How many people does your solution currently serve?

18 (we're in friends and family testing currently)

Why are you applying to Solve?

Totem believes that the Solve network can provide us with the expertise needed to accelerate our work, validate our impact, and scale our solution. There are several different aspects of the business that we’d like to seek assistance on including: 

  • Support for executing our tribal ID program - Totem has the opportunity to help decolonize banking by becoming the first financial institution to accept tribal IDs to complete the identity checks required to open a digital bank account. This project will involve creating a grass roots program that will help us bring Natives together to help provide sample IDs to make the project possible. 

  • Support for researching which approaches to credit-building might be the most viable for our customers. 

  • Support on developing our co-marketing partnerships and other tribal partnership infrastructure that will help scale our user base. 

In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?

  • Business Model (e.g. product-market fit, strategy & development)
  • Monitoring & Evaluation (e.g. collecting/using data, measuring impact)
  • Product / Service Distribution (e.g. delivery, logistics, expanding client base)

Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Amber Buker

Please indicate the tribal affiliation of your Team Lead.

Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

How is your Team Lead connected to the community or communities in which your project is based?

Amber Buker is the founder & CEO of Totem. It was her personal experience attempting to access benefits through her tribe to help her buy her first house that planted the seed for Totem. 

Amber's Choctaw heritage came from her father's side of the family. He wasn't able to share the tribe's cultural heritage with her due to addiction. But Amber's mother made great efforts to ensure that she experienced her culture. She took Amber to the International Indian Club of Tulsa on a regular basis, found elders who "adopted" her into their families, volunteered at the Johnson O'Malley program, and supported Amber's activities as a fancy shawl powwow dancer and princess. 

Amber has been a recipient of Indian health services, commodity foods, school supply and other benefit programs. She was born and raised in Indian Country. And, after a time spent away in bigger cities, she returned to her home in Oklahoma — the heart of Indian Country. 

The experiences of Amber and her co-founder are what gives Totem an edge. Our solution is truly by and for indigenous people, and based on their lived experiences. 

More About Your Solution

What makes your solution innovative?

Totem is innovative in its efforts to decolonize banking. To build our product, we’ve taken a close look at all compliance and regulatory policies and updated them, departing from the way traditional banks do business in order to better serve our audience. For example, most banks will not mail customer debit cards to a post office box. But for Natives who live on very remote reservations, their addresses may be undeliverable. This means that they have to rely on that PO box to receive their bank card and communications. Totem worked with our sponsor bank to make an exception to this rule, allowing Totem customers to get their debit cards delivered no matter their address. 

Here are other ways we're working to decolonize banking: 

  • Keeping money in the community - if your tribe is a Totem partner, money goes back into your tribal community with every purchase you make

  • Reinforcing tribal sovereignty - Totem has partnered with Plaid to become the first bank to accept tribal IDs for the identity verification required to open a digital bank account! 

  • Lifting up Native ways - We make it easy for our customers to support their family and friends. Send money to other Totem members for free. 

  • Building through a Native lens - our policies, vendors, and products are designed for the lived Native experience and based on customer research.

As discussed above, Totem seeks input on our products from indigenous people and this has also led us to build different products than other non-indigenous led fintechs in our space. For example, a lot of fintechs offer traditional savings accounts which can carry penalties or fees if too many transfers are made in or out of the account. This created problems for the Native folks we interviewed. Many of them expressed the stress of these restrictions prevented them from saving at all, because they know there’s a chance they’ll have to move money around and they don’t want to be penalized. We’ve developed our unique Stash Cash feature (which launches in Q3 2023) to address these issues. 

With Stash Cash, Totem customers can create custom savings goals and put small amounts of money away into different subaccounts. Totem has taken on the financial burden of paying fees when customers move money between these accounts, so that the customer only sees the easy-in and easy-out user experience that we designed to make saving less scary. 

Totem is also innovating on the business model for digital banks. While most digital banks focus on interchange revenue and then add on fee-based products later to grow their revenue, Totem has built an antifragile model that recognizes the significant role tribal governments play in their members’ lives. We plan to white-label versions of Totem so that tribes can offer banking and benefit information under their own brand. This and other fee-based businesses for tribal governments bolster our model so that we aren’t pushed into extracting revenue from free account holders.  

What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and how will you achieve them?

Broadly, Totem’s impact goals are centered around increasing the financial wellness of individual Native Americans and their participation in the modern financial ecosystem. Every account we open for a Native American customer is an impact, because we know the accounts we provide are safe, free, easy to use, and built to increase connection with tribal communities and resources — an improvement over existing offerings. We will measure the number of accounts and the amounts of fees we’ve saved our customers as primary impact metrics. 

We’ll also be tracking the number of resource articles our users interact with. These articles are designed to connect our users to benefit programs and cultural groups that will help them live their best Native lives. 

In the future, we plan to measure increases in user credit scores when we roll out our credit builder product later this year. And eventually the number of mortgages we’re able to provide our users will also count toward our impact metrics. 

We currently track the diversity of our staff and leadership, as well as speaking events (which raise awareness of indigenous issues) and our inclusive policies (such as our decolonized holiday policy.) We complete in depth impact reporting each year for our current investors. 

Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?

  • 1. No Poverty
  • 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • 10. Reduced Inequalities

How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?

Totem reports on its impact each year to multiple funders including ImpactAssets, Candide Group, and Raven Indigenous Capital Partners. With Raven, specifically, our reporting is designed to align with the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. We particularly accord with Article 3, regarding indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination (including the ability to freely pursue their economic development), and Article 21, which confirms indigenous peoples’ rights to the improvement of their economic conditions. We work with our lead investors at Raven Indigenous Capital Partners to document our goals and measure our success on these standards annually. 

What is your theory of change?

Totem’s theory of change posits that, when barriers to accessing financial services are removed, our people will take advantage of our modern offering to not only strengthen their own financial health, but that of their communities. Totem is designed so that it’s quick and easy to get more Natives banked. As our customers grow with us, that account will serve as the foundation for growth in financial stability, as we will be able to offer more beneficial products (like credit building solutions and mortgages) down the road. 

At the same time, we posit that connecting customers to tribal resources in the app will strengthen their connection with their tribal communities, which also benefit from our revenue share program. 

These two modalities will create a stronger Indian Country where, someday, it won’t be so rare for our people to have bank accounts, mortgages, and as good of a chance as others at financial wellness. It all starts with enabling access to basic, fair financial services and building from there. 

Describe the core technology that powers your solution.

Totem is a mobile app that brings together over a dozen financial and customer service solutions, plus our payment processors and bank partners, to move funds on behalf of our customers. Uniquely, Totem is one of the few digital banks to have brought all of these pieces together individually, as opposed to relying on middleware providers that limit optionality. 

We leverage partners like AWS to ensure that we’re applying the highest level of bank-grade security to manage the app. And our technology stack has helped us build strong, direct relationships with best-in-class partners that offer strategic value as we expand into new business lines. These direct partnerships have already begun to enable new product innovation (e.g. our partnership with Plaid to become the first bank to accept tribal IDs for digital KYC identity verification.)

We’ve also chosen to build the platform using the Flutter development language. Flutter is a cutting-edge technology that can be used to create natively compiled applications for mobile, web, and desktop from a single codebase. Building on Flutter creates massive efficiencies for Totem by eliminating the need to program for iOS and Android separately. 

The choice to use Flutter was a difficult, but highly intentional one. Because Flutter is new, we knew that Totem would encounter difficulty finding developers that are experienced in the language. But we also knew that this choice, coupled with our preference for hiring Native, could potentially create an advantage for Natives in tech who could work with Totem to gain this unique experience and eventually bring their skills to the broader employment market. We see an opportunity to train Native developers in this new technology so that indigenous people might become known someday for their expertise in this language. 

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new application of an existing technology

Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Software and Mobile Applications

In which parts of the US and/or Canada do you currently operate?

Nationwide, USA

In which parts of the US and/or Canada will you be operating within the next year?

Nationwide, USA

Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?

For-profit, including B-Corp or similar models

How many people work on your solution team?

7 FT staff, 2 PT staff, and 8 contractors

How long have you been working on your solution?

1 year

What is your approach to incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusivity into your work?

Totem us committed to celebrating diversity through a Native lens. We have inclusive policies (like our decolonized federal holiday policy), quarterly cultural events to help our team understand the Native perspective, and a Native hiring preference. We also take an inclusive approach to hiring, making sure that we never overlook someone because of a lack of formal education or having a resume with some gaps. 

Our team is 66.7% Indigenous and our leadership (co-founders) is 100% indigenous. 

Your Business Model & Funding

What is your business model?

Totem has a unique business model that will eventually incorporate 3 prongs. Today, we're working to launch our direct-to-consumer model that will provide fee-free accounts to our customers. Totem makes money on the interchange fees that these customers generate from merchants when they use their card to make purchases. Totem is also partnering with tribes at this stage to help co-market our accounts leveraging a B2B2C model.

Soon, we plan to launch our B2B white-label offering, that will enable tribes to provide a custom branded version of our app for their members. Eventually, we'll launch our disbursements program which will yield volume-based payments revenue. 

Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, to other organizations, or to the government?

Individual consumers or stakeholders (B2C)

What is your plan for becoming financially sustainable?

In addition to the revenues described above, Totem plans to continue taking on venture capital investments and grants to support our growth. According to our projections, Totem will hit profitability at the end of 2024. 

Share some examples of how your plan to achieve financial sustainability has been successful so far.

Our founder is the second Indigenous woman in the US to raise a multi-million dollar venture capital funding round. We raise $2.2M primarily from impact investors. We also received grant money and AWS credits as a part of our participation in the AWS Women Founders Accelerator.

Solution Team

  • Amber Buker Founder and CEO, Totem
to Top