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Mohegan Chief Lynn Malerba on serving as U.S. treasurer, boosting Native American health

 Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen swears-in Lynn Malerba, as the Treasurer of the United States at the Treasury Department, Monday, Sept. 12, 2022 in Washington. Malerba becomes the first Native American to serve as Treasurer of the United States.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
/
AP
Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen swears in Lynn Malerba as treasurer of the United States at the Treasury Department on Sept. 12, 2022, in Washington. Malerba is the first Native American to serve as U.S. treasurer.

Lynn Malerba, chief of the Mohegan Tribe, is the first Native American to serve as U.S. treasurer. She said her appointment is a commitment to having Native voices heard at the highest levels of government.

“Being in this role is really serving not only all of Indian country but all of our Native nations – all of our Native citizens – but also all of the communities throughout the United States because part of the role of treasurer is community engagement,” Malerba told Connecticut Public Radio’s Where We Live.

Malerba is also overseeing a new Office of Tribal and Native Affairs, which will coordinate tribal relations across the Treasury Department. Malerba said she plans to focus on supporting the development of tribal economies and economic opportunities for Native Americans.

Among the urgent issues she wants to tackle: addressing health disparities. Native Americans and Alaska Natives have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Life expectancy for Native Americans and Alaska Natives dropped by nearly seven years during the pandemic, according to federal health data. That’s a larger decline than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S.

Malerba wants various federal agencies to work together to improve health outcomes.

“Combine our efforts to make sure that as we think about how we're dealing with this post-pandemic world, that we're helping to rebuild those tribal nations from those very serious impacts that we experienced,” she said.

Here are highlights from Malerba’s conversation on Where We Live:

On economic development opportunities for tribes:

Tribes do not tax their citizens, which is how most municipalities and states provide services to their citizens. … We would like to be able to offer tax incentives. And in some locations, tribes are able to do that. And I think that will be something that we're working on here at Treasury: Are there ways to provide tax credits, but that is not a fully formed thought yet. I’ve been in the position for about two months or three months now. And so I’m just starting to get my feet on the ground. But surely, we're going to look at ways that we can provide access to capital for tribes, and then how we can help tribes develop the infrastructure that perhaps would allow them to be more successful with economic development. …

Broadband capability is spotty on some reservations. And surely, you need to have good infrastructure in terms of broadband, you need to make sure that you have good … infrastructure in general. Some tribes have difficulty with running water. Some tribes have difficulty providing electricity if they’re in very remote locations. And so it really will be more of a whole of government process and initiative to look at how we can look at all of the tribes ... that are throughout the United States and then tailor our approaches to those tribes based on what we hear from them.

On how her signature will appear on U.S. currency:

I signed my name Lynn Roberge Malerba. And there’s a very sentimental reason why I did that. … There are prohibitions for signing any moniker. So whether it’s Mr., Mrs., Dr., anything, so I thought: “OK, that’s fair, I guess I can't sign Chief.” … I grew up in a family of seven children with my parents – just the most loving wonderful parents on the planet. However, they struggled financially because they had seven children. And so they always had a little bit of difficulty making sure they had enough funds available to provide for us. We always had what we needed. But surely they were not wealthy people. And so my middle name is my parents’ last name, Roberge. It was a very emotional moment for me to sign their name on the currency, knowing how they struggled to raise us, knowing how what loving parents they were. Despite the fact that they had difficulties financially, sometimes, now their name will be on the currency. And I think that that’s a wonderful legacy to them.

On the swearing-in ceremony in September:

It was very difficult to not be emotional at that moment. And it was very special to me that my family was able to witness such a wonderful moment. I had two of my sisters there as well as my daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren and numerous members of our council of elders and tribal council there and other tribal people here located in D.C. So it was really very special. Chairman [Rodney] Butler [chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation] attended as well. You know, we needed all of our Connecticut Indians in the house. But it was really a wonderful moment, and again, I wish my parents were there to see it. I know that part of any joy in my life is making my family proud. Whether it’s my immediate family or my tribal family, and in this case, all of Indian Country proud – and Connecticut. And so it was really a special moment. And Secretary [Janet] Yellen was just so gracious in her remarks.

Watch the swearing-in ceremony

On the regalia she wore at the swearing-in ceremony:

It was very important to me that we swore in an Indigenous woman because that is my role. And it is something that has never been done before. … I really did want people to recognize me as an Indigenous woman and an Indigenous leader. And I was thrilled that my daughters wore their regalia. And my grandchildren wore their regalia except for my grandson, because I didn’t have time to make him a new ribbon shirt. But one of my granddaughters wore her mother’s regalia. And that was very touching to me. And our council of elders also were dressed in their regalia. So it was really a celebration for all of us.

Reflecting on National Native American Heritage Month in November:

What I’d like people to remember is: It’s not just about our history, it’s about the fact that we are very resilient people. And we’re still here. And we’re still contributing to the overall good of the United States, with our culture, with our history, with the art that we make, with our Indigenous foods. And so the lands that we all love, we all share together. And it’s important that people remember that we may be the first people here, and we were the stewards of this land. But now I want everybody to remember that they need to be good stewards of our homelands as well.

These interview highlights have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Eric Aasen is executive editor at Connecticut Public, the statewide NPR and PBS service. He leads the local newsroom, including editors, reporters, producers and newscasters, and oversees all local news, including radio, digital and television platforms. Eric joined Connecticut Public in 2022 from KERA, the NPR/PBS member station in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Lucy leads Connecticut Public's strategies to deeply connect and build collaborations with community-focused organizations across the state.
Katie is a producer for Connecticut Public Radio's news-talk show 'Where We Live.' She has previously worked for CNN and News 8-WTNH.