Training for Native nations' financial managers

By

Marshall Terrill

Anni Leaman has a respectable-sized to-do list when she returns home to Massachusetts later this week.

She’s going to create a couple of new finance committees, check into whether her tribe can issue bonds on construction projects, find innovative ways to reduce her tribe’s debt and establish a first-time fraud hotline.

And that’s just for starters. Her employer, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, is paving the way for a massive 150-acre gaming and entertainment venue in Taunton, Massachusetts.

Leaman was hired by the tribe almost 10 months ago and is a newbie when it comes to working for a tribal government.

“It takes a certain personality to work for a tribal community, and there are lots of challenges,” Leaman said. “I’m so glad I got this training.”

Leaman is referring to the Tribal Financial Certification Training offered through Arizona State University’s American Indian Policy Institute (AIPI), in partnership with the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA). A certification session is taking place this week on the Tempe campus, in which Leaman is a participant.

It’s part of ASU’s Tribal Economic Leadership Program, which is designed to help Indian nations navigate the layers of complicated red tape while also offering educational and professional-development training for tribal government staff, members and leaders to support the long-term economic sustainability of nations.

Most people are under the impression that Native nations operate under the veil of sovereignty and are financially accountable to no one.

In fact, tribal governments deal with many more layers of bureaucratic complexity, regulations and compliance issues than most municipalities because of the unique relationship they share with federal, state, county and local authorities.

“There’s a demand for a more systematic and consistent training to understand the relationships that exist between tribes, federal, state, county and local governments,” said Traci Morris, director of ASU’s American Indian Policy Institute.

“Our training not only helps tribal governments through advocacy and leadership development but brings together members of tribes throughout the country to improve networking and improve nation building.”

Approximately 60 attendees from more than 40 tribes around the country — some as far away as Oklahoma, Washington, Alaska, Florida and Massachusetts — came to ASU’s Tempe campus this week to receive their Tribal Financial Manager Certification. The three-day training program, which will end on Wednesday, covered a plethora of complex financial topics. They include Federal Indian Law and Policy, Governmental Accounting in a Tribal Setting, Federal Financial Compliance, Tribal Enterprise-Accounting for Propriety Funds, and Federal, State & Tribal Taxation.

Some believe accounting for tribal governments is much more sophisticated and complex than most municipalities.

“There are a lot of nuances in financial government within a tribal government, and the complexities that we have as a sovereign nation centers around our trust relationship with the U.S. and federal government,” said Maria Dadgar, executive director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona Inc., which has an $18 million annual operating budget.

“Not only do we deal with federal, state, and local entities, but there are various organizations within our member tribes. It’s a lot of reading, memorizing, learning and monitoring.”

The program started in 2009 as a vision of NAFOA, and the AIPI took up the effort to develop and offer the program. With seed funding from the Arizona Board of Regents, the AIPI gathered a team of nationally recognized experts on financial management and Indian law.

Anthony Falcon, who was recently named acting treasurer for the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, said he took the training this week at ASU to get up to speed.

“When I thought about what kind of skills I want to have as far as being active treasurer, I looked at the training and the topics we were going to cover and it’s just what I wanted,” Falcon said. “I want to be able to take information back with me to be able to provide timely and accurate information to our decision makers to help determine what’s best for our investments and business decisions.”

Falcon said his 7,600-member tribe might be small but that they have an operating budget in the “hundreds of millions.” He says that kind of cash flow requires constant vigilance.

In addition to monitoring accounts, investments and improvement projects, he will oversee how grants are administered and whether they follow all guidelines, and he makes sure that all cooperative agreements with state and local governments follows compliance.

That sort of multitasking is not only a tough job, but proof that Indian Country is now big city when it comes to finances.

“Tribes feel that they do have the capacity from within to do complex financial work and are able to contribute and give back to the state economically,” Dadgar said. “It’s not just in Arizona, but in every state.”

Top photo: Attendees participate in the Tribal Financial Managers Certification program at the Tempe campus' Memorial Union on March 23. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now