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Vi Waln
Special to ICT

ROSEBUD, South Dakota — Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen spent a day meeting with South Dakota’s tribal presidents Tuesday in the first visit ever to Indian Country by a treasury secretary.

The visit, hosted by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, included stops at St. Francis Indian School, Ojinjinkta Housing Development Corporation, Keya Wakpala Community Garden and Sinte Gleska University.

The visit also included a small wacipi in the evening, with Yellen and Malerba participating in a round dance with tribal officials and others.

“I promised to visit Indian Country and I couldn’t be more gratified to have had this chance to visit with you today,” Yellen said, earlier in the day.

(Related: Another first: Indigenous woman named US treasurer)

“Treasury and the administration are deeply committed to partnering with you," she said. "We know that the programs the government is now implementing are by no means sufficient to remedy centuries long inequities and injustices, but it’s a start. And it’s a start I think we can build on in the years to come. I am excited to continue this journey with you as even deeper partners.”

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Yellen visited with several tribal presidents about the impact of American Rescue Plan funds on supporting overall recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic and how tribal leadership is working to expand economic opportunity for citizens.

Rosebud is “making history as far as having a visit by the Secretary of the Treasury,” said Scott Herman, president of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “We had a very productive meeting this morning.”

Yellen was accompanied by Lynn Malerba, who has been tapped by President Joe Biden to become the new U.S. Treasurer, an appointment that no longer requires approval from the U.S. Senate.

Malerba, a lifetime chief of the Mohegan Tribe, will be the first Indigenous person to serve as U.S. Treasurer and the first Indigenous woman to sign U.S. currency. A Cherokee Nation citizen, Houston Benge Teepee, served as Register of the Treasury from 1915-1919 and signed U.S. notes along with the U.S. Treasurer.

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“For the first time in history, a Native woman’s name will be the signature on our currency,” Yellen said. “With this announcement, we’re making an even deeper commitment to Indian Country.”

Yellen also announced creation of a new Office of Tribal and Native Affairs in the Office of the Treasurer, which will work with tribal communities. Malerba will oversee the new office.

Lynn Malerba, Mohegan, the newly appointed U.S. Treasurer, addresses a gathering on the Rosebud Reservation on June 21, 2022. Malerba joined U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in meeting with tribal leaders in what is the first time a U.S. treasury secretary had visited a tribal community. (Photo by Vi Waln for ICT)

“There is no one-size-fits-all for Indian Country,” Malerba said. “Each Indian tribe gets to decide for themselves what their priorities are and how to manage their programs and how they create their programs. But we know without economic development we can’t keep people on the reservations. And we can’t keep our economy strong.”

Yellen said tribes are “the backbone of local communities” and noted that tribal governments are often the largest employer in their region.

“Simply put, reservations are centers of economic opportunity for millions of tribal and non-tribal members, and they merit deep investment by the federal government and our private sector partners,” Yellen said.

“It’s been illuminating to listen to you discuss the deep challenges that you and tribal nations around the county face and hear your thoughts on how we can partner together to accelerate economic recovery for all tribal citizens,” Yellen said. “I’ve spent my entire career thinking about economic policy and how it can help people during hard times and then create longer term opportunities. I see a great deal that policies can do to support tribal communities.”

But Yellen also noted that inequities remain.

“Many have their roots in prior federal policy,” Yellen said. “According to the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights’ Broken Promises report, over 25 percent of Native Americans live in poverty. In certain tribes, over half of their citizens live in poverty. For Native Americans living on reservations, the unemployment rate is around 50 percent and those numbers are unthinkably high.”

The pandemic created additional problems in those communities, she said.

“The last two years have been hard for everyone, but they have been especially difficult for Native American communities,” Yellen said. “Tribal communities have had some of the highest COVID mortality rates in the country, and the data shows that few suffered more than Native American workers and enterprises during the pandemic. In addition to the pain the pandemic caused tribal families and communities, this disproportionate impact resulted in the loss of critical tribal revenue that supports government services for tribal citizens in need.”

Yellen said 90 percent of the billions of dollars in funds provided to tribal communities through the American Rescue Plan has been distributed by tribal governments for housing, businesses, vaccinations and other projects.

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