NAFOA Announces its 16th Annual Leadership Awards Recipients


Apr 25, 2023

WASHINGTON, DC – The NAFOA Leadership Awards honor the accomplishments of a tribal leader, tribal executive, and financial deals advancing tribal economies. The 16th Annual Leadership Awards were presented at the 41st Annual NAFOA Conference in Washington, DC.

Government Impact Deal of the Year Award
NAFOA awards the Government Impact Deal of the Year to tribal financial ventures that have a long-lasting positive economic impact on their community and tribal members. On January 28, 2022, after more than 10 years of teamwork and focus, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, Morongo Transmission, LLC, with the law firm Jenner & Block, secured the final approval of transmission rates for the recently upgraded power lines crossing their reservation. This was a historic agreement between the tribe and the Southern California Edison (SCE) company and has profound short and long-term potential benefits for the tribe, the surrounding communities, Indian Country, and the climate. The $800 million project has a significant effect on California’s transmission infrastructure buildout, tripling the transmission system’s capacity to connect solar, wind, and battery projects located outside of the Morongo reservation to the Southern California region. Additionally, by securing the annual revenue requirements as a 30-year investment, Morongo Band ensured that the tribe will have a stable and certain income from Morongo Transmission, LLC for decades.

Business Impact Deal of the Year Award

NAFOA presented the 2023 Business Impact Deal of the Year to The Jamul Indian Village of California for refinancing debt related to the construction of their casino, owned and operated by Jamul Indian Village Development Corporation (JIVDC). With Western Alliance as Lead Arranger, JIVDC reduced its interest rate burden by over $30 million annually. Western Alliance and its lender group (Nevada State Bank, Columbia Bank, and CIT) were able to refinance $130 million of the roughly $400 million in outstanding debt, and Sculptor (existing lender) was willing to become a subordinated lender for the remaining $270 million of debt (“Jamul Casino Refinancing Transaction”). The initial Jamul Casino Refinancing Transaction closed in January 2021. By June 2021, due to the performance of the Jamul Casino, JIVDC was able to exercise its option to increase the loan from $130 million to $200 million. This increase enabled the JIVDC to move the high-interest debt over to low-interest debt and improve cash flow. In February 2022, the JIVDC was able to refinance with the existing lender group along with the addition of U.S. Bank and KeyBank to refinance the entire debt related to the casino and take out all of the high-interest debt and move the entire loan to a conventional, low-interest rate structure. This structure of this deal will be pivotal for tribal leaders looking to refinance their projects in the future.

Education Program of the Year Award
NAFOA’s Education Program of the Year Award honors a creative and effective education program that furthers knowledge and understanding of business, economic development, or related fields. This year, the recipient of the award is Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation (COMCN). The Tribe has a large, state-of-the-art health services department available to Cherokee citizens and members of other federally recognized tribes. However, knowing that less than 1% of medical students nationwide are Native American and that doctors historically practice within 50 miles of where they do their residency, the Cherokee Nation partnered with the Oklahoma State University School of Medicine to establish the first tribally associated medical school in early 2021. The Tribe invested $40 million in the 84,000-square-foot facility. COMCN’s inaugural class had 54 students who are expected to graduate in May 2024.

Executive of the Year Award
NAFOA’s Executive of the Year award is given to Tribal leaders who have demonstrated effective leadership and financial planning for the benefit of Indian Country throughout their career. This year, NAFOA is excited to present our 2023 Executive Leadership Award to Maxine R. Velasquez from the Pueblo of Laguna Indian Reservation. Velasquez currently serves as President and CEO of Laguna Development Corporation (LDC). An attorney by training, Velasquez became the first woman to steward a multimillion-dollar tribally owned corporation for her community. In 2022, she was the lead negotiator in the sale of the company’s Ellis Park Racing and Gaming facility in Henderson, Kentucky to a nationally recognized casino and horse racetrack operator. The deal generated a 305% return on the company’s original investment made in 2019. Before joining LDC, Velasquez served as In-House General Counsel and was in private practice for more than 20 years representing tribes and their business entities on the full range of legal and policy issues. She continues to be licensed to practice law in New Mexico.

Tribal Leader of the Year Award
Chief B. Cheryl Smith of the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians is the recipient of this year’s Tribal Leader of the Year Award for her 50 years of service and leadership to her Tribe.

She served on the Tribal Council from 1975 until 1998 during which time the Tribe obtained federal recognition. She was elected the first woman Chief in 1998 and served in that capacity until 2002. She served again on the Tribal Council from 2004 until 2010 when she was re-elected as Chief, the position she held until October 23, 2022, when she retired from public service. Under Chief Smith’s leadership, the Tribe has enjoyed sustained economic development and growth, including the opening and planned development of several diverse businesses, generating revenues, and enabling the Tribe to provide additional programs for and services to the Tribal Members.

Chief Smith has also served Indian Country and LaSalle Parish as the current Treasurer and a Board Member of the United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc., a Board Member on the Inter-Tribal Council of LA, a former Board Member of the Central Louisiana Economic Development Authority, past Chairman and member of the Colonial Trails Committee, ad hoc member of the LaSalle Economic Development Board, and former Board Member of the LaSalle Association for Developmentally Disabled. Chief Smith has been married for 38 years to her husband Rusty, and they have five sons and 14 grandchildren.

Bettina Gonzalez, Director of Communications



NAFOA was originally founded over 40 years ago as the Native American Finance Officers Association to highlight the role of tribal finance in fostering economic opportunities. NAFOA has grown along with tribes over the years to be advocates of sound economic and fiscal policy and developers of innovative training programs in financial management to build the next generation’s financial and economic skills. Semiannually, NAFOA convenes tribal leadership, experienced professionals, and economic partners to meet the challenges of economic growth and change. To learn more about NAFOA, visit the website


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