Why did it take so long for Treasury to establish a tribal office?
'No matter how many times we told them, like all the ‘Great White Fathers’ before them, they thought they knew better.'
WASHINGTON — After years of inaction that has led to vast inequities, the U.S. Department of the Treasury listened to tribes this week, announcing the creation of an Office of Tribal and Native Affairs to oversee the agency’s trust and treaty responsibilities to tribes.
The announcement came at the same time that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited a tribe for the first time — the Rosebud Sioux — and as the Biden White House announced that it was appointing Lynn Malerba, currently the chief of the Mohegan Tribe, as treasurer of the United States.
Malerba — who does not have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate for this appointment — will also oversee the new tribal office.
For decades, tribes have unsuccessfully asked the agency to create a dedicated tribal office, just as many other federal agencies have done.
But Republican and Democratic administrations alike have failed to act, and Treasury officials have never given a sufficient — or any — explanation for why the agency has to date not established such an office.
The thinking inside the agency in recent times, according to some tribal officials who have worked with federal officials there, seemed to be that tribal issues didn’t deserve such dedication — that the effort was simply not worth the cost.
“They did not understand the trust responsibility to tribes,” one tribal leader who has ongoing dealings with the agency told Indigenous Wire. “No matter how many times we told them, like all the ‘Great White Fathers’ before them, they thought they knew better.”
Rosebud Tribal President Scott Herman said as much during Yellen’s visit, noting that many tribal leaders have felt they have been unheard on a variety of economic and social issues for a long, long time.
Tribes have for years said that unique taxation and other financial issues related to them should be overseen by a dedicated staff with direct access to Treasury’s leadership.
The nation-to-nation relationship heralded by many administrations would seem to require it, but still nothing happened, time and again.
Problems involving federal pandemic funding to tribes during the Trump and Biden administrations made the tribal critiques all the more prescient.
As a result of poor tribal relations, the agency — according to tribes and researchers and bipartisan lawmakers — did a poor job at providing equitable funding across tribes. At the same time, some believe it failed to do appropriate consultation and that it continues to have problems related to delivering some pandemic funding to tribes.
Treasury, under the Biden administration, has insisted it has done appropriate consultation, but there have concurrently been many internal debates about formulas the agency chose to use related to tribes that resulted in some tribes feeling they have been shortchanged.
Various Treasury staffers have been put in the hot seat over the issues, but the truth, according to several tribal officials, is that this has been an institutional problem across presidential administrations.
For the first two years of the Biden administration, the request for a tribal office was not something that Treasury wanted to discuss. Many times, Treasury officials would offer no comment on that topic, despite being pressed by tribes and by lawmakers like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
Inside Treasury, a few Native-focused staffers were pushing for the creation of such an office, knowing that they were facing scrutiny over the potential misallocation of billions of dollars of aid to tribes — and that there could be legal and/or political ramifications.
U.S. Interior Department officials were also among those pressing Treasury to take such action. One such official told Treasury officials that their decision-making had cost some of the poorest tribes “millions of dollars” in aid, while richer tribes gained “tens of millions of dollars” that they apparently did not immediately need.
Yellen and White House leaders, in recent weeks, decided to finally listen. Staffers inside Treasury, including senior advisor Fatima Abbas (Haliwa Saponi), are being credited by some as the most important factor in moving the ball forward.
“Fatima made her concerns known to the right people in the right places,” a separate tribal official told Indigenous Wire. “Without her and a few other staffers — who are frankly overwhelmed why the amount of tribal issues they have been expected to tackle — this office might not have become a reality.”
As part of the effort, Treasury Chief Recovery Officer Jacob Leibenluft was sent to the Port Madison Indian Reservation of the Suquamish Tribe in April as an initial test run before Yellen’s visit to Rosebud.
"I was very thankful for that opportunity and look forward for further opportunity for the Treasury to engage with tribal leaders both in the Northwest and across the country," Leibenluft told the local Kitsap Sun publication after his visit. He additionally said he enjoyed learning about the tribe’s history and current educational and economic activities.
To that point, Leibenluft had been charged with distributing over $30 billion in pandemic aid to tribes. Yet he had never visited a tribe before. In fact, his excursion was Treasury’s first visit ever to a tribe, according to the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA).
“They have been responsible for so much, yet they have done so little,” another tribal leader lamented to Indigenous Wire at the time of Leibenluft’s visit. “One visit to one tribe is a good first step, but they need to understand the vast differences in the types of tribes. Not all tribes have benefited equally from the Treasury Department’s formulas.”
Yellen, during her own visit to Rosebud on June 21, has acknowledged privately that mistakes have been made in her handling of some tribal issues, according to knowledgeable tribal officials and lawyers.
To make such an admission publicly could create some legal liability for the department, so Yellen has kept her public remarks largely forward-looking — and she is not surprisingly playing a cheerleader’s role for the Biden administration’s efforts to date. When she talks about federal policy problems in terms of tribes, she makes sure to frame them as “prior” problems. And now she has Malerba and the new tribal office to take some of the heat.
The truth, tribal leaders say, is that problems continue right now under current federal policy, including the slow delivery of remaining pandemic funds to tribes by Treasury. That slowness, in fact, has left the impression to some lawmakers that tribes don’t need the funds, which could result in clawbacks.
Still — with the new tribal office and Malerba’s appointment — institutional changes are taking place that could soon alleviate these issues.
Yellen, for one, seems hopeful.
“We know that the programs the government is now implementing are by no means sufficient to remedy centuries-long inequities and injustices,” Yellen told Rosebud citizens. “But they’re a start, and it’s a start that I think we can build upon in the years to come.”
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