Pro tips Q&A with Michael Roberts, president & CEO of First Nations Development Institute

Myelle Lansat


Myelle Lansat

Myelle Lansat

News Editor

Myelle Lansat is a news editor at Policygenius, where she writes the Easy Money newsletter and covers insurance and personal finance. Previously, she was a personal finance writer at CNBC and Acorns, and a reporter for Business Insider.

Published October 8, 2020 | 3 min read

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Financial well-being is part of the spiritual and cultural connection Native Americans have with their communities, said Michael Roberts, a member of the Tlingit tribe. He’s the president and CEO of First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit organization providing financial services for Native Peoples. Ahead of Columbus Day, we spoke with him about some of the financial issues Native Americans face and the importance of a strong financial foundation.

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This interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

What common financial issues do Native Americans face?

Native peoples have been consciously excluded from the American economy, deliberately made invisible and thus excluded from the American Dream. For centuries they have fought relocation and extermination, the breaking of treaties, the removal from their native lands and the taking away of native resources. This has left native communities with vulnerabilities in their infrastructures ranging from lack of healthy food to lack of high-speed internet, and everything in between.

As a result, Native Americans have the highest poverty rate among all minority groups. What happens then is that many Native Americans not only deal with the hardship of being poor, they also experience factors that put them at increased risk for mental illness, chronic disease, high mortality and lower life expectancy.

How can Native Americans push back against these challenges?

It is imperative that native peoples make themselves visible, and begin changing the narrative about the way they are seen and the opportunities they deserve. My advice is to stand up, be heard and be counted. This can be as simple as registering to vote or contacting their local and state representatives on issues that matter to native communities. I further encourage native peoples to take stock of their resources and the programs and services that make those communities stronger. If this means reaching out for technical assistance, training, funding or support, by all means, do it.

What’s the biggest money mistake you see others make?

Many people simply don’t have the luxury of making a “mistake.” I think for some it is wise to make sacrifices on spending – cook more often at home, buy fewer electronic gadgets, do not always splurge on the latest and greatest items. But for many folks, making a few cut-backs in spending is not an option. Instead, we’re asking them to make trade-offs that are very unfair – food or heating oil, clothes or rent, or immediate family needs versus a long-term investment in education.

Why is it important to have a strong financial foundation?

It is important to have a strong financial foundation, both in financial knowledge and financial assets. Whether we want to believe it or not, having a strong financial foundation is key to freedom in our lives. It allows a person to have choices. A healthy savings account allows someone to choose to go to college, choose to change jobs, or choose to start a business. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it buys options.

What’s something you’re financially proud of?

Somehow, somewhere I was encouraged to invest in my education. The opportunities that have been presented to me as a result have allowed me to have a great deal of financial freedom.

Do you have any money regrets?

My wife and I bought Starbucks stock after it went public and I wish I would have purchased more.

What’s the worst financial advice you’ve ever received?

“Don’t worry about it, you can always earn more,” and “Just trust me.”

Image: Nastia Kobzarenko