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Lanyards await more than 800 attendees of NAFOA’s 41st annual conference being held at the Renaissance Washington DC Downtown in Washington, D.C. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
NAFOA opens annual economic development conference in nation’s capital
Monday, April 24, 2023

WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 800 tribal leaders and finance professional in Indian Country are in the nation’s capital this week for NAFOA’s 41st annual conference.

NAFOA, founded as the Native American Finance Officers Association in 1982, kicks off the conference on Monday morning. Over two days, attendees will hear from a wide range of experts on topics of interest in Indian Country, including economic development, broadband, cannabis and data sovereignty.

“We’re getting a good turnout,” NAFOA executive director Rico Frias said in a brief interview on Sunday, as member tribes gathered before the start of the annual event.

Signs at the Renaissance Washington DC Downtown in Washington, D.C., direct attendees to sessions at NAFOA’s 41st annual conference. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

NAFOA currently counts more than 150 tribal governments as members. Since joining the organization nearly two years ago, Frias has been working to reach even more in Indian Country.

“We’ve been steadily growing,” Frias said.

NAFOA boasts an all women board of leadership. Cristina Danforth of the Oneida Nation serves as president with VaRene Martin, from the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, and Celina Phair of the Lummi Nation as 1st and 2nd vice presidents, respectively.

Also serving on the board is Hattie Mitchell from the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, who holds the position of treasurer. Melanie Benjamin of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is NAFOA’s secretary.

NAFOA’s leadership seeks to inspire, motivate and mentor the next generation of professionals in Indian Country. As part of this year’s conference, a group 12 young American Indian and Alaska Native up-and-comers — the largest class to date — met on Sunday for the fifth NAFOA Leadership Summit.

The young leaders will be joining other conference attendees on Monday for a morning session that includes a timely update on the U.S. Supreme Court. At around the same time, the justices will be hearing arguments in Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians v. Coughlin, a case that will determine — for the first time — whether tribes enjoy sovereign immunity in federal bankruptcy proceedings.

The opening day also features remarks from Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, followed by breakout sessions on trends in the $39 billion Indian gaming industry, rising costs of construction projects in Indian Country, cybersecurity of tribal assets and creating more inclusive workspaces.

On Tuesday, two members of CongressRep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin) and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) — are on the agenda to discuss tax reform, tax parity and other legislative priorities on Capitol Hill. NAFOA also will get an update from U.S. Treasurer Lynn Malerba, a citizen and lifetime chief of the Mohegan Tribe who is the first Native woman to hold the high-ranking leadership position at the Department of the Treasury.

The conference wraps up in the afternoon with a series of breakout sessions on the Treasury Tribal Advisory Committee, the cannabis industry, the near decade-old Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act that addresses >tax issues among tribal citizens and doing business in foreign trade zones. Finally, a reception in the evening will close out the two-day event.

Exhibitors set up booths at the Renaissance Washington DC Downtown on April 23, 2023, in preparation for the start of NAFOA’s 41st annual conference in Washington, D.C. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)