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Federal Reserve governor engages Oklahoma tribal leaders on challenges of pandemic
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Federal Reserve governor engages Oklahoma tribal leaders on challenges of pandemic

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Higher education barriers, the lack of broadband and career readiness outside college were among the themes discussed Wednesday at a roundtable of Oklahoma tribal leaders.

Lael Brainard, governor of the Federal Reserve, was the featured speaker at the virtual event, which was held at the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City and titled “Engaging Tribal Leaders on Financial Inclusion and the Economic Challenges of the Pandemic.”

“The resilience of Native communities was evident in the strong response of tribal nations to the pandemic,” Brainard said. “As early as April 2020, just a month after the pandemic swept across the U.S., tribal nations were proactively offering COVID-19 testing for the general public.

“Once vaccines began to roll out in early 2021, tribal nations distributed them under a prioritized and phased timeline developed in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. This assistance from tribal nations helped make Oklahoma one of the top 10 states for vaccine rollout.”

But the public health crisis exacerbated sharp economic disparities among the tribes when compared to other sectors of the population. Those include median household income and access to credit and banking services.

More than 16% of American Indian-Alaska Native households did not use banks in 2019, a percentage three times higher than the national average, Brainard said.

The low levels of banking relationships are partly due to a lack of proximity of bank branches, he said, explaining that majority-Native American counties, on average, have only three bank branches, which is below the nine-branch average in nonmetro counties and well below the 26-branch overall average for all counties.

“Just the basic act of opening a bank account is challenging when the nearest bank branch is, on average, 12 miles away from the geographic center of a reservation and may be more than 60 miles away — in comparison to less than 1 mile on average for most counties,” Brainard said.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said Native Americans also lag behind in access to and participation in higher education. To that end, the tribe last year spent $16 million on college scholarships.

“We are in a state in which tuition and fees at colleges and universities have gone up about 30% over the last decade,” Hoskin said. “We’re in a state that for a decade retreated from higher education.

“Now, what did that do to the burdens of paying for college? They didn’t go away. … What happened is that it shifted onto students.

“If it shifts onto students in terms of tuition and fees, that means it’s more burdensome on those who are at the lower income scales. It turns out that Native students tend to be on the lower income scales.”

Creating more broadband opportunities — Hoskin said the Cherokees have doubled the amount spent on those — can lead to more educational opportunities and help tribal members get a foothold in the economy and access health care.

“Imagine a community without cell service,” Hoskin said. “It doesn’t seem possible today. But it happens in this country, and it happens in Indian Country.”

Some also must prepare for a career without attending college, he said.

“We’re a tribe that brought the first med school to Indian Country — to Tahlequah, Oklahoma,” Hoskin said. “But we also need to remember that many of our people can work in the trades. They can work in technical fields. They can work in fields that are very rigorous in terms of intellect and skills but they’re not necessarily college-degree programs.”

Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill said the demand for for such workers as welders, mechanics and plumbers remains extraordinarily high.

“The Muscogee (Creek) Nation is always striving to provide and collaborate with educational institutions to recruit and train people for these positions and also prepare for the new digital economy,” he said.

Featured video: Murthy: $4B to help Native tribes fight COVID-19

The White House says American Indian tribes and Alaska Native communities are getting more than $4 billion as a result of President Joe Biden's coronavirus relief legislation. The money will help address a range of issues, from getting more people vaccinated, to improved testing and contact tracing, and also reimbursing tribal health systems for lost revenue during last year's coronavirus shutdown.

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