DECEMBER 30, 2021 – Article shared below with permission from INSIDE Public Accounting (IPA). IPA is the professionâ€™s authoritative independent newsletter for analyzing news, trends, best-practice strategies, and insider information.
More than 500 Native American tribes in the U.S. have the right to form their own governments, regulate property, and create and enforce their own laws, yet even the most basic information is not taught in schools, let alone in accounting classes, laments REDW partner Corrine Wilson.
Even veteran government accounting professionals are unaware of the workings of tribal government finance and tribal enterprises that can range from cattle herds to convenience stores to casinos (and none can be run like private entities).
â€œHow do we begin to wrap our brains around all this when thereâ€™s no foundational knowledge taught anywhere?â€ Wilson wonders. As co-leader of REDWâ€™s tribal practice, she shares her expertise within the firm and with tribal government finance teams, who often lack formal accounting education. Financial education is a personal commitment, but itâ€™s also one example of the holistic approach taken by her firm to support tribal economies far beyond complying with accounting and auditing requirements.
Wilson, one of only two female Native American partners within firms with tribal practices, recently joined senior manager Hattie Mitchell to share how REDW works to meets tribesâ€™ diverse needs.
Albuquerque, N.M.-based REDW (FY20 net revenue of $33.8 million) began serving tribal communities 30 years ago with a passion and respect for tribal sovereignty and culture thatâ€™s been sustained over the decades. Now the practice generates 40% of total firm revenue. With 200 tribes in its client base, REDW serves more sovereign nations and employs more Native American professionals than any other firm in the country.
Comprehensive services, free resources and genuine support and involvement in client communities is the centerpiece of a successful niche, no matter the market or the clients.
REDWâ€™s niche offers a tribal leadership conference, HR consulting, benefits consulting, investment portfolio design and management, and, of course, a full range of compliance and accounting services. Beyond the accounting work, the firm also gives back to tribal communities with financial literacy education, scholarships for Native American accounting students, art commissions, workshops and compensation surveys for tribal government employees and gaming operations.
Expertise Through Experience
One pillar of success in any niche is expertise. Developing that knowledge in Indian Country takes professionals who are up for a challenge. Sorting out the intricate financial rules and unique intersections with federal and state governments is complicated. With no revenue-generating property or income tax base, tribal commercial entities fund services for tribal members, which can include hospitals, road departments, utilities and schools. Accounting treatments are different and the gray areas are numerous.
Wilson and Mitchell have spent their entire careers serving tribes from different angles. Wilson, a member of the Ft. McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of Nevada, has overseen the financing of economic development activities for tribes throughout the Southwest, including three years as a CFO for a large tribal health care corporation. Sheâ€™s a national expert on the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, pushed for Native American representation and was on the Governmental Accounting Standards Board Advisory Council for NAFOA for six years.
Mitchell, who grew up on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Reservation in Kansas, served a four-year term as the elected treasurer of her tribe. She also worked with the Seneca Gaming Authority in Buffalo, N.Y., and as controller of the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians in Coachella, Calif. Both she and Wilson have been active in the Native American Finance Officers Association; Mitchell now serves as treasurer.
Mitchell says she was encouraged to learn how to read financial statements like a book, and she is committed to building strong finance teams in Indian Country now and in the future. When she was elected treasurer of her tribe, she was given no direction, so she made it her mission to learn more. She took a certification program for tribal financial managers at Arizona State University (developed by Wilson and others), and now teaches there herself. Meanwhile, in practice, she goes out of her way to explain the fundamentals to clients. â€œThey get interested and sometimes it spurs them on to get more education,â€ Mitchell says.
Keep Learning and Stay Flexible
Deep knowledge is critical, not only to handle the work, but also to spot unmet needs and find ways to help solve those problems so tribes can build their economies and become less dependent on federally funded programs and grants. Tribes are always looking for capital for infrastructure, technology and economic development, and continuous financial education is needed to keep up with the most efficient and effective ways to run tribal operations.
Like any other niche in any other accounting firm, hiring and retaining professionals is a huge challenge at REDW. Wilson and Mitchell say it takes specific attributes to serve tribes. Flexibility is No. 1, as turnover in tribal finance is high and services can run the gamut. The one person who leaves a tribal finance operation could be the entire payroll department, â€œSo you just have to keep learning and you have to have a team attitude and take whatever comes,â€ Mitchell says.
Native Americans in the predominantly all-white accounting profession have had to serve as advocates for themselves and for their clients. Wilson says direct communication and a champion within the organization has helped her move forward, even though progress toward more diversity in accounting is a long-term and often slow-moving process.
Advocating for tribes is easier within a firm that makes it a priority, not an afterthought, Wilson says. Tribes operate with an eye on coming generations and REDW does the same. â€œWe have these financial resources and weâ€™re building our economies. How do we do a good job of that and move things forward so there is something for the future?â€ she said of the tribes. â€œWe feel invested in that in lots of ways.â€