Mika Leonard in the Detroit News: Give Native Americans Voice in Federal Financial Regulations

Feb 5, 2021News, Tribal Sovereignty

The below opinion column from NAFSA Chief Operations Officer Mika Leonard originally appeared in the Detroit News.

On Jan. 26, the Biden administration tackled inequality with executive orders and presidential memoranda addressing issues faced by vulnerable populations, minority communities and people of color, including a presidential memorandum designed to address inefficiencies in tribal consultation and nation-to-nation relationships. Over 100,000 Native Americans live in Michigan, which is home to 12 federally recognized Tribes. As a tribal member (Miami Nation), I was grateful to see President Joe Biden focused on the inequality faced by our communities.

As an executive in the native-owned/native-servicing financial services sector, I am hopeful that federal agencies will heed the president’s words and use this opportunity to make long-overdue improvements to their tribal consultation processes.

But what is tribal consultation? Tribal consultation is a critical part of the federal rulemaking process that requires agencies to communicate with tribal governments and consider how proposed regulations may help or hurt Indian Country. Tribal consultation policy is often vague and leaves leeway for each agency to tailor tribal consultation to its needs.

Although tribal consultation takes many forms, federal agencies and departments that interact with tribal governments have some type of dedicated human resource — ranging from an individual to an entire department responsible solely for tribal consultation at that agency. For example, on Jan. 25, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the appointment of a director of the Office of Tribal Relations.

Undoubtedly, other similar appointments and announcements will be made in the coming days and weeks. Sadly, there has never been such an appointment or representative at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the agency with primary responsibility for enforcing America’s financial regulations.

Tribal consultation at the CFPB is particularly important because of the growing footprint of financial services businesses in Indian Country. Although one might not think of banking and financial services as common Indian Country industries, there are over 100 native-owned or native-serving financial institutions, including banks, credit unions, Tribal sovereign wealth funds, online lenders and community development financial institutions.

Financial services revenues have proven vital within Indian Country, becoming even more crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic that has hurt America but devastated tribes. Indian Country cannot rely on traditional tax bases and has a long history of bureaucratic processes inhibiting economic growth. Moreover, gaming, hospitality and tourism revenue are inadequate or nonexistent for geographically isolated tribes and have completely disappeared during the COVID-19 crisis. 

For these reasons, tribal financial institutions have been a lifeline for many tribes, supplementing government budgets; funding important medical, child and eldercare programs and assisting tribal members with other extraordinary needs. All the while, bricks-and-mortar tribal businesses (e.g., hotels and casinos) are closed or operating at a minimal capacity due to social distancing requirements.

These businesses are diverse and are operated in congruence with unique tribal culture and customs. Still, each deserves to have a voice with its regulators.

Robust tribal consultation is extremely important to tribes in Michigan, which contribute $3.4 billion in casino revenue and $288.8 million non-gaming dollars to the state’s economy, employing thousands of workers across dozens of tribally owned businesses in many sectors, including insurance, construction, professional services, and financial services.

This need to be heard is why dozens of tribal nations, including members of The Native American Financial Services Association, have called on the Biden administration and the CFPB to improve the Bureau’s tribal consultation policy by establishing a dedicated tribal liaison position within the Bureau.

The CFPB can be an advocate or obstacle to the tribes that own and operate banks and bank-like businesses. Unfortunately, recent history has shown us that when agencies lack a dedicated resource that understands tribal economic development, tribal consultation policy falls by the wayside. 

Engaging with Indian Country in this fashion would uphold the federal government’s responsibilities and ensure that President Biden’s orders are followed by action, and are not just empty words.

Mika Leonard is a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, a member of the board of directors for the Miami Nation Enterprises, and chief operations officer for the Native American Financial Services Association, a trade association dedicated to providing better economic opportunity in Indian Country by advocating for tribal sovereignty and responsible financial services


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