By: McKenna Green, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior
As the longest-running seated board member of NAFOA, VaRene Martin (Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, Mvskoke (Creek) Nation) has a unique perspective on the importance of financial empowerment and economic prosperity in Indian Country. Martin currently serves as the 1st Vice President on the Board of Directors. She observed that before NAFOA, the tribal finance and economic development sector lacked a professional organization; tribes had nowhere to network, suffered a lack of information and access to capital, and were particularly susceptible to predator companies. “When you are forced to hire outside of the community, you are vulnerable to be taken advantage of and it can go on for years before anyone finds out,” Martin explains.
According to Martin, NAFOA evolved from listening to the needs of tribes to becoming a unifying organization for tribal finance. Founded as the “Native American Finance Officers Association,” it started out as a professional association of sponsors. Accounting firms, banks, and consulting companies working with tribal government and enterprise clients sought education and networking. Meanwhile, tribes needed reliable access to accounting, finance, and economic development assistance and education.
Although there are numerous challenges for Indian Country, such as barriers to education, equity in government policy, and isolation from resources, Martin offers an inspiring outlook that we must “work with the challenges” to continue growing a prosperous future for Indian Country.
For over 40 years, NAFOA has been developing solutions, networks, and education by and for Indian Country. It now serves 160 member tribes, with a diverse set of sponsors spanning from tribally-owned entities to central U.S. banks. In 2011, Martin single-handedly grew NAFOA’s tribal membership platform. From there, NAFOA has become the “go-to organization for all things accounting, finance, budgeting, economic development, and access to capital.”
“We continue to evolve for the needs of our membership,” says Martin. By listening to member tribes and providing educational advancement opportunities, NAFOA actively responds to emerging needs.
With the workforce challenges Indian Country experiences, like high staff turnover and lack of professional development. NAFOA’s Institute aims to respond to the needs of Indian Country and offer culturally competent continuing education and professional development. NAFOA is developing a university partnership to deliver a virtual grants management program focusing on the post-award period of federal grants. The program is expected to be available by 2024.
“With the expertise NAFOA brings together, we are able to promote economic development in Indian Country, provide financial management education, and advocate for beneficial policies and partnerships,” all of which, says Martin, helps tribes attract investments, develop businesses, create jobs, and improve the overall economic well-being of Native communities. Martin is immensely proud of the progress at NAFOA and is excited about the organization’s continued evolution to support Indian Country.