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May 5, 2023 at 10:36 pm #67182MarcSnellingKeymaster
Haliwa-Saponi woman named director of U.S. Treasury’s Office of Tribal and Native Affairs
Contributed by Amber Richardson (Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe) Apr 20, 2023
In March, Fatima Abbas, Haliwa-Saponi, was named director of the Office of Tribal and Native Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The office is the first of its kind and has been established as a permanent fixture within the department. Fatima is the first person—and the first Indigenous woman—to serve in this inaugural role.
Fatima is a citizen of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe, an eastern woodlands tribal nation headquartered in Hollister. She grew up in Philadelphia, Pa., with activist parents who instilled a strong sense of belonging to both her mother’s Indigenous lineage and her father’s Pakistani heritage. Fatima’s mother, Abigail Abbas, was a passionate civil rights activist and advocate for tribal rights. She cultivated in Fatima a connectedness to their tribal community despite the distance. Fatima’s maternal grandparents were Haliwa-Saponi citizens Attie Marie Harris and Horace Earl Lynch, and she fondly recalls visiting them and attending the Haliwa-Saponi Powwow during the five years that her family lived in Clayton.
Fatima’s career journey has resulted in a unique perspective that informs her approach to policy development. She grew up without many resources in an inner city neighborhood just outside of Kensington, Pa. She earned an associate’s degree from the Community College of Philadelphia and later earned a bachelor’s degree from Temple University before securing her Juris Doctorate from UC Berkeley’s School of Law. Her career in Indian Law has taken Fatima from a firm in Philly to the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Arizona to the Karuk Tribe in northern California. These experiences showed Fatima the uphill battles that many communities and tribal nations face as they advocate for resources to support their people. Fatima carries this awareness into powerful decision-making spaces where she is able to effect change.
Just before the onset of the global COVID pandemic, Fatima joined the staff of the National Congress of American Indians, where she advised on policy and legislation. In 2020, NCAI created a working group of tribal organizations and representatives who hoped to leverage the momentum of fast-moving pandemic legislation to dispatch much-needed emergency resources to Indian Country. Fatima, having been trained as an attorney, but now finding herself in a legislative role, drew on past input from tribal leaders and joined the working group in proposing a pandemic bill of $20 billion, which many considered unrealistic. “I had lobbyists tell me I was a naive millennial with no legislative experience,” Fatima recalls. “In one conversation, I said, ‘You’re right. I don’t have legislative experience, but I do have legal experience. So let Congress knock that number down, but I’m not going to negotiate against my client, which is Indian Country.’” Though the initial CARES Act included only $8 billion for Indian Country, NCAI ultimately secured over $32 billion for tribal nations and organizations.
Following this victory and after learning that Chief Lynn Malerba, Mohegan Tribe, would become the first Native woman to serve as U.S. Treasurer, Fatima pitched the Department of the Treasury to hire her so she could support a more seamless and successful administration of the appropriated funds. Fatima now leads a team of three Indigenous policy advisors and advises the Treasurer as a direct line to the Secretary of the Treasury on all tax matters within the department that impact Tribes or Native people.
“Tribal nations have long advocated to create the Office of Tribal and Native Affairs—and the
Biden Administration is making history by not only meeting these calls, but by appointing strong
leadership to its helm,” said Chief Lynn Malerba, Treasurer of the United States. “Fatima’s
experience and depth of knowledge make her the perfect choice to stand up the first-ever Office of Tribal and Native Affairs at the Treasury Department.”
For Fatima, accessibility and outreach are paramount, and she aims to leverage her position to normalize those practices. She’s already working hard to enhance tribal consultation and provide more responsive support. In the past two years, Fatima and her team have conducted 28 consultations and 300 engagement sessions, offering technical support whenever an issue arises. She often thinks of her great-aunt, Kathy Harris, who serves as interim tribal administrator for the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe, and reminds colleagues that, often, these critical positions are fulfilled by elders or underresourced community members for whom a federal grant management portal presents significant challenges. This intensive support is merely table stakes for Fatima and her team. “We don’t limit tribal engagement to just attending a consultation and speaking on a formal record,” she says. “Whenever there’s an issue, you should have access to a person. In this new office, we want to institutionalize what we’ve already done so that we carry this on in every single administration. We owe it to Indian Country to not regress.”
In addition to garnering national recognition, Fatima’s impact is also being lauded within her tribal community. “It is truly an honor to witness our tribal citizens making such a monumental impact for the whole of Indian Country,” said Dr. Ogletree Richardson, Chief of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe. “We are grateful for Fatima’s tenacious advocacy for Native peoples and proud to celebrate her success.”
It was noted that Fatima looked forward to returning to North Carolina for the post-pandemic return of her tribe’s spring Powwow, which was held last weekend.
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