Briefing touts importance of Native financial literacy


WASHINGTON - Nearly 50 American Indian leaders, congressional staffers and
regulatory agency officials crowded into the Senate Indian Affairs
Committee chamber recently to hear a briefing on the importance of
financial education for raising the standard of living in Indian country.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.; U.S. Treasury Department Deputy Assistant
Secretary Dan Iannicola; Cecelia Fire Thunder, president of the Oglala
Sioux Tribe; Elsie Meeks, chairman of the Native Financial Education
Coalition; and Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National
Congress of American Indians, addressed the briefing, which was held in
conjunction with Financial Literacy Month.

All stressed the importance of financial education for Native communities.
Iannicola said financial literacy for Native people should be made a high
priority. "Native communities often deal with unique challenges, both in
the reservation and off-reservation contexts," he said. "Financial
education can help people overcome these challenges and achieve a secure
financial future."

The briefing was hosted by the Native Financial Education Coalition, a
group of organizations and government agencies working to promote financial
education in Indian country. NFEC has established an aggressive program
that has trained 800 instructors to teach a Native-oriented curriculum
called "Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families."

That curriculum was developed by the Kyle, S.D.-based First Nations Oweesta
Corp. and the Fannie Mae Foundation in Washington, D.C. FNOC is a unit of
the First Nations Development Institute of Virginia.

Iannicola, in remarks made last year at a NFEC meeting, said the Treasury
wants to bolster basic savings, credit management, home ownership and
retirement planning.

According to NFEC, "Native communities have traditionally been underserved
by the financial services industry and are frequently targeted by predatory
lenders and tax preparers. Limited financial expertise and inadequate
financial education resources have significantly hindered the economic
health of Native communities.

"Financial education can help to promote financial responsibility and
accountability, which leads to stronger self-governance at the individual
and tribal level."

The purpose of the briefing was to increase federal policymakers' level of
understanding of the issues, request support for policies that advance
financial education in Indian country and promote inclusion of Native
issues in a national strategy being developed by the Financial Literacy and
Education Commission.

That commission, coordinated by Iannicola's Office of Financial Education,
is chaired by the Secretary of the Treasury and has more than 20 members
from federal regulatory agencies and departments.

NFEC was started by the Treasury in 2000 but is now independent and
spearheaded by FNOC. Both FNOC and NFEC are chaired by Meeks. Many dozens
of groups now belong to the coalition, including lenders (such as Bank of
Albuquerque, Wells Fargo and Washington Mutual), nonprofits (American
Indian 'Business Leaders, CFED and the Housing Assistance Council) and
government entities (Federal Reserve Board Governors, the Federal Deposit
Insurance Corp. and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency).

Other focal points for its work include four pilot projects at tribal
colleges and universities, youth initiative pilots in Minneapolis and South
Dakota, investing and retirement planning in Indian country, and promoting
access to the earned income tax credit in Native communities.

The group said having financial education in Native communities improves
savings and budgeting skills, increases access to affordable housing
finance, acts as a defense against predatory lenders and helps families
achieve their financial goals.

Two years ago, NCAI, First Nations and nonprofit CFED put out a report,
written by Jennifer Malkin of CFED, called "Financial Education in Native
Communities: A Briefing Paper" which noted the unavailability of financial
literacy education on Native homelands and found a direct correlation
between that and predatory lending on reservations.