COMMENTARY: Financial illiteracy on the Boundary

by Jan 24, 2022OPINIONS0 comments



One Feather Staff


I was amongst the last groups of EBCI (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians )kids that received their ‘big money’ in one lump sum. I had just graduated high school and was told the best thing to do would be to cash the whole lot and take it to my preferred bank. Talk about a recipe for disaster.

Per Capita distributions have been a constant boon in my life and have allowed me to experience growth and independence. With the benefits provided by the Tribe, I know I am immensely privileged. I do my best to realize this and be humble, knowing how many of my friends and family have had to fight and scratch to have the bare essentials in life.

With that being said, I do question why I often still feel like an outlier. There are too many folks around my age that had the same financial benefits and yet you would never know. You can blame an individual, but that’s a lazy verdict that shows a misunderstanding of our community. We are all tremendously lucky to have the benefits that the Tribe provides us, but we haven’t yet learned what it is to maximize on that potential.

Financial literacy is a must these days. Credit can swallow your fiscal future, and it’s far too easy to blow through the money you may receive as an 18-year-old. In my mind, it was a very forward-thinking decision to amend how Tribal youth receive their ‘big money’. Instead of handing someone with little-to-no life and financial experience $100,000 or more in cash, now they receive that money in increments. A chunk at ages 18 and 21, with the rest at 25.

The Minors Trust Fund is an unbelievable pool of money. In 2021, it was approaching a worth of one billion dollars. Unfortunately, there not a tremendous amount of learning resources for those receiving that money. I, for one, never had any sort of financial education courses at Smoky Mountain High School. There has been an effort to establish such a course at Cherokee High School, but there must be a more concerted effort across the Tribe. Kids don’t necessarily want to learn about finance, but it is crucial for Cherokee people in the modern day. It is important knowledge for anyone walking into the ‘real world’, but it’s a different story if you know you’ll be receiving $200,000 to $300,000 of additional income by the time you’re 25.

Whether it be huge expenses, supplementing family income, or poor decisions, too many of my generation did not take advantage of the opportunities they were provided. More than that though, it is our community that has not seen the privilege before them. Why is it that a young person would make a dramatic financial mistake? Is it because they’re truly lacking in intelligence, or were they simply never taught any better?

Money is often a scary and uncomfortable subject for many people, and I understand that. But if our parents and grandparents don’t have a sense of how to handle money, their children will have to learn it on their own. We need to do better for each other.

One of the ways the Tribe looked to address financial illiteracy on the Boundary was by holding a seminar for Tribal employees interested in learning more. This was an informative course, but it was limited. They could only have so many attendees, and they had to be Tribal employees. This doesn’t help most of our parents or grandparents. This is a key example of a good option that just isn’t an overall solution. There are a lot of individual efforts, but not much movement on a grand scale. Strong efforts by a few people can only go so far, especially if people don’t know where to even look for these opportunities. Not to mention that the pandemic eradicated this program for the time being.

I think one step could be mandatory financial literacy courses for those in the Minors Trust Fund, as well as for parents or guardians of those kids. Making people take classes is not a surefire way of creating passion. In fact, it can cause resentment. However, we’re talking about the livelihood of our Tribal members and their futures. I was someone dedicated to treating my finances carefully, and yet I was overwhelmed swimming in the deep in for years after receiving my first per cap. We need courses that break down short term and long-term solutions to investment. Benefits of a mutual fund, individual stocks, retirement accounts, insurance, credit, and all the basic things that are a blurry nightmare for the majority of young adults in America.

The truth is, there are a few resources out there already. However, activity is minimal. Again, I feel this comes down to confusion amongst parents. A high school student already has a ridiculous number of things on their plate. It seems each year more is expected out of juniors and seniors. College applications expect volunteer work, extracurriculars, college courses, résumés, and even internships by the time you walk onto a new campus. The available Tribal resources need to be extremely well known and pushed. Why in the world do kids have to go find them for themselves?

There was a website that launched in 2021 to assist with those in the Minors Trust Fund. You can track the status of your portfolio and take classes on the site. The problem is that very few used it when it launched. Tribal Finance was tasked with the publication and sharing of this valuable resource. Something like that could be revolutionary, so every department should have been pushing this site. We should have seen consistent social media posts, fliers, and everything possible so that every member of the community knew about this. That was not the case.

Even still, this site was not on the EBCI domain. It was and you had to know which buttons to click to get you to the right home screens. There are enough emotional barriers keeping us from these materials, a brand-new site should be consumable and seamless. This seemed like another project that came from a brilliant space but was another individual effort from one primary department. This led to a limited outreach and harder work that could have been facilitated on a bigger scale.

More than anything we need to shed away the taboo nature of discussing finances. It feels there are ‘secrets to success’ in Cherokee. Financial responsibility is more of a nice thing that isn’t a big deal. Poverty is a consistent issue across Western North Carolina, and Cherokee is no exception. However, no other population receives the amount of privilege as the EBCI in that region. Free health care, college, housing assistance, and the all-powerful per capita distribution.

I have learned the majority of what I have about finance by simply asking questions and using the endless resource of the internet. When I sit down with a loan officer or investment advisor, I don’t want to feel like I’m reading another language. I had the additional benefit of tremendously caring and responsible parents, but even then, they weren’t sure how to direct me when I received a huge amount of money at 18. Never once did my friends and I discuss appropriate solutions once we got the check either. It almost felt like we weren’t supposed to. This is absolute nonsense and something we need to squash.

Finance is ultimately an individual responsibility. However, education is a community goal. We have sat idly while our future generations have struggled with life-changing sums of money. We need to do better for ourselves and our children. An idea that is perpetuated at every Tribal Council and School Board session is ‘anything for the kids’. Well, what they need is not a new gym or trip to Hawai’i. It’s our help. A basic path educating them on finance and life decisions.