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Tribal financial program now offers distance learning options

Desert scene
December 08, 2011

Distances stretch for miles on end and Internet access may be virtually nonexistent in many pockets of the nation’s Native American communities. Distance learning is a perfect fit for American Indian communities to bring educational opportunities to remote areas.

Arizona State University is launching its popular Tribal Financial Manager Certificate program in a distance learning format, providing access to tribal professionals who are unable to travel to the university for this vital course.

People who go through the program can now take the course online through Blackboard in a self-paced program or listen to CDs that can be played in a car, through iTunes or on an MP3 player. Or, they can continue to come to ASU for an intensive three-day session.   

“If you’re driving a long distance, you can listen to the audio portion. We tried to provide as many options as possible,” said Pat Mariella, American Indian Policy Institute director. 

The Tribal Financial Manager Certificate program has been a success since it began, attracting financial managers from tribes across the country who learn how to manage funds in a tribal setting.

“We’ve gotten tremendous feedback because it’s not taught anywhere else,” said Corrine Wilson, a Certified Public Accountant for Moss Adams who helped shape the program while she was vice-president of the Native American Finance Officers Association. Wilson is also a current instructor in the program.

Launching the distance learning portion of the program is the next logical step for the program that was started as a partnership between ASU’s American Indian Policy Institute and the Native American Finance Officers Association.  The Arizona Board of Regents provided seed funding for the program through an Arizona Regents Reach Out grant.

Learning how to manage finances for tribal governments is a specialized and complicated skill. As tribes move toward operating the full range of governmental functions, tribal members are taking over programs that were formally run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal government, said Eddie Brown, American Indian Studies professor and Executive Director of the American Indian Policy Institute.

“Tribes are responsible for running programs and applying financial resources appropriately. That gets very complex,” Brown said.

Managing funds requires that those doing the accounting understand the rules, regulations and laws that govern the money that tribes manage.

“Tribal governments also have their own laws to follow,” Wilson said.

For instance, since tribes typically don’t have property taxes, their unrestricted income is generally more commercial in nature. Internal Revenue Service laws are also different for tribes, she added.

Core focus areas of the program include federal Indian law from the perspective of financial management in tribal settings, tribal government accounting aspects that take into account self-determination contracting and self-governance compacting as well as taxation. Participants earn a professional certificate upon completion.

“There is a core curriculum that people need to understand. This is a critical tool that tribal governments need,” Mariella said. “I jumped on it when we had the opportunity to develop the program at ASU in partnership with the Native American Finance Officers Association.”

Offering the program through distance learning provides another important option for tribal employees to learn about finances through the popular program.

“Through the in-classroom program, we have already trained close to 100 people from tribes throughout the United States. Tribes vote with their feet and we have a waiting list,” Mariella said. Costs for the program range from $1,500 to $1,950.

Being able to offer the program in a distance-learning format is part of ASU’s vision to bring the university to the community, Brown said.

“We’re delighted that ASU is able to offer that service,” Brown said. “The Financial Manager Certificate Program is one example of how the university is reaching out to work with the community and provide the type of training that is so severely needed.”

Registration for both the distance learning program and the next in-classroom session (January 24-26, 2012) is now available at