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Finance conference focuses on developing the nations' wealth

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. - The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation was the host of the Seventh Semiannual Native American Finance Conference, an intensive two-day event focusing on Indian country's current and future economic well-being.

The conference took place Oct. 15 - 16 at the Grand Pequot Ballroom on the third floor of the Grand Pequot Tower, the tribe's signature hotel at Foxwoods Resort & Casino.

The event was organized by Information Management Network, a company that organizes institutional finance and investment conferences all over the world.

The conference is the biggest of its kind to take place in Indian country, bringing together hundreds of representatives from tribal nations across the country and professionals from top-level firms specializing in investments, financial consulting, Indian law, corporate banking, trusts, insurance, real estate, housing, bonds, gaming and all aspects of financial planning and management. This conference included a special focus on developing tribal energy resources and green energy.

A Pima elder from the Gila and Salt River reservations opened the conference with a traditional prayer, followed by a short welcoming speech by Mashantucket Pequot Chairman Michael Thomas.

Thomas, who co-chaired the conference committee, said the task was ''a labor of love'' for him and the MPTN council.

''We're happy to support your efforts to assure that tribal governments, tribal communities and tribal businesses have the same financial toolbox available to them at some point in the future that our counterparts in the non-Indian community have always been able to depend on,'' Thomas told attendees.

Thomas noted that the conference was taking place on the first Indian reservation created in the country.

''Not that it's something to be terribly proud of, but in 1666 we were the folks that the colonial powers thought should be confined to this land at Mashantucket and we've called it home ever since,'' Thomas said, wishing the attendees good luck in their ''beautiful work.''

Carl Artman, assistant secretary of Indian affairs, gave the keynote address. He said the issues of economic development and finance were of ''great importance'' for tribes entering the marketplace and those seeking to move on to the next level.

''I view the role of the office of Indian affairs in the Department of the Interior in this area of economic development and finances is that of providing stability to the marketplace for both the financier and the entrepreneur,'' Artman said.

The greater part of his speech centered on encouraging tribes to develop the energy resources on their lands.

''Energy development provides a solid investment opportunity for many tribes. In 2005, these resources generated $40 million in royalty payments to tribes and individuals. This is an area of continuing economic growth for tribes. It's estimated that about a quarter of Indian lands have developable energy and mineral resources,'' Artman said.

He said he wanted to focus on BIA ''initiatives'' to help provide tribes with access to capital, opportunities for economic development, and stability in tribal economies.

Interior is updating regulations to include ''new mechanisms'' that will allow lenders to sell portions or all of their loans to secondary markets, and is establishing standards and procedures for certain loan guarantees, Artman explained.

This year the department guaranteed around $87 million in loans with a loss of less than 2 percent, Artman said.

Although audience members listened silently to most of Artman's speech, they gave him a long round of applause when he said, ''I support Congress' attempt to amend the Internal Revenue code to provide for the treatment of Indian tribal governments as state governments for the purpose of issuing tax exempt governmental bonds.''

Bills pending in both the Senate and the House will allow tribes to issue tax-exempt bonds if 75 percent of the net proceeds are used to finance a facility on the reservation or if all of the proceeds will be used on governmental functions, Artman said.

The conference was organized around panels with four or five members with two sets of discussion happening simultaneously in separate areas. Panel topics included Pension Protection Act on tribal retirement plans, captive solutions for tribal nations, leveraging federal and state monies, building tribal energy resources and green energy. Other panels included discussion on real estate, building domestic and international markets, financial literacy and hedge funds.

Gary Koutsoubos, IMN vice president and the event producer, said the conference ''set an all-time attendance record'' for the East Coast. More than 500 people registered and more than 60 percent of attendees were tribal members. The conference success has allowed his organization to contribute $1,000 to the American Indian College Fund. The next semiannual Native American Finance Conference will take place at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas on Feb. 26 - 28. For more information, visit www.imn.org/esb1035.