Published in The Day
By Brian Hallenbeck
Mohegan — For a self-described “shy girl from Uncasville,” being named the 45th treasurer of the United States — the first Native American so appointed — is pretty heady stuff to say the least.
On Friday, three days after the historic announcement, Lynn Malerba, chief of the Mohegan Tribe, was ebullient, using such words as “surreal,” “amazing” and “humbling” as she described her path to the sub-Cabinet-level post during an interview in her office at the Mohegan Community and Government Center.
First, she walked the center’s grounds, posing for pictures in front of a statue of her great-grandfather Burrill Fielding, who served the Mohegans as Chief Matahga from 1937 to 1952.
What might he have thought about a Mohegan woman’s signature on U.S. currency?
Malerba’s been pondering such things since she was first asked by a reporter about the signature she’ll provide, a treasurer's prerogative since 1861. Thirty-four of the previous treasurers have lent their signatures to the nation’s bank notes, as have 32 Treasury secretaries and 17 "registers of the Treasury."
Malerba’s thinking she might sign “Chief Lynn Malerba” or maybe “Chief Many Hearts Lynn Malerba,” depending, she said, on “what they will allow.” Her Mohegan name, “Mutawi Mutahash,” translates as “Many Hearts.”
Once Malerba’s appointment as treasurer becomes official with a yet-to-be-scheduled swearing in, it’ll be some time before the currency-printing Bureau of Engraving and Printing prepares new plates with the signatures of Malerba and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen. Though Yellen provided her official signature more than a year ago, the vacancy in the treasurer’s post — Malerba's predecessor, Jovita Carranza, left in January 2020 — has held things up.
New currency bearing the signatures of Yellen and Malerba will be the first signed by two women in U.S. history.
Malerba traveled Tuesday with Yellen to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and returned to Washington, D.C., that night. On Wednesday, Malerba returned home.
Officials from the Department of Defense arrived Thursday to conduct a background check involving interviews with tribal members as well as Malerba’s colleagues, friends and associates. The process will lead to the granting of a security clearance that befits the government official in charge of the U.S. Mint, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the Fort Knox gold reserves.
Among the contacts Malerba provided to investigators were her next-door neighbor in Niantic, a friend of more than 50 years and the chief of cardiology at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London, where Malerba supervised nurses for more than 20 years before going to work for tribal government.
“I have a pretty boring life. I don’t need to worry,” she quipped.
Malerba, 68, said she learned the Biden administration was considering her for treasurer when a “policy person” from the White House called her in late January or early February.
“I was shocked,” she said.
Yellen participated in what Malerba said was a long vetting process that included being interviewed by a White House attorney, the deputy Treasury secretary, Yellen’s chief of staff and Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council.
On her end, Malerba had to clear things with the Mohegan Council of Elders, which elected her chief, a largely ceremonial position, in 2010. They discussed her continuing as chief while serving as U.S. treasurer, if appointed, and returning to the chief's role full time once her term as treasurer ends.
Tribal leadership gave her its full support.
“Then, I approached my family,” Malerba said. “Of course, they were all for it. The entire family is ecstatic.”
She credited her husband, Paul, for supporting her throughout her career, saying, “No one achieves success alone, and he has been by my side every step of the way.”
In what Malerba called “a happy coincidence,” her temporary relocation to the Washington, D.C., area will enable her to get closer to one of her two daughters, Elizabeth “Liz” Malerba, director of policy and legislative affairs for the United South and Eastern Tribes organization, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., with her husband, Jeremy Horan, and their 3-year-old son, Connor.
Malerba has found an apartment in the neighborhood.
Her other daughter, Angela Werry, lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Matthew, and their daughters, Taylor and Charlotte.
Concerns over potential conflicts of interest dictated Malerba relinquish seats on the Treasury Tribal Advisory Committee; the Department of Justice's Tribal Nations Leadership Council; the Tribal Advisory Committee for the National Institute of Health; the Tribal Self-Governance Advisory Committee of the Indian Health Service; and the board of directors of the United South and Eastern Tribes.
Locally, she stepped down from the board of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and as a trustee of Chelsea Groton Bank.
Malerba’s string of “firsts” began when she became the first woman to chair the nine-member Mohegan Tribal Council in October 2009. She was elected to the office by council members after winning the most votes in a council election among the full tribal membership. In March 2010, the elders council elected her chief, installing her in the lifetime position that August.
A daughter of the late Loretta Roberge, who served on the Tribal Council for 30 years, Malerba is the first woman to serve as chief in the tribe’s modern history. Anne Uncas, who served as interim chief in 1723, is the only other woman to hold the position.
Now, Malerba's the first Native American appointed U.S. treasurer and the first person to lead the Treasury Department's newly established Office of Tribal and Native Affairs.
“We’ve been advocating for this office for a long time,” Malerba said, referring to Treasury Tribal Advisory Committee members. “We’ve wanted a high-level officer in the Treasury to be appointed to such an office and, at least in the short term, I’ll be that person, as treasurer. In the long term, it will need to be codified in legislation and guaranteed funding.”
While the Biden administration has made strides in supporting tribal nations, some controversy attended its distribution of COVID-19 relief funds, Malerba acknowledged.
“The second tranche went much better,” she said. “They heard what the tribes were saying and they responded.”
COVID-19 illuminated the inequities that plague many tribes. As Yellen noted during her visit to the Rosebud Indian Reservation, more than 25% of Native Americans live in poverty. In some tribes, more than half the citizens are impoverished. On reservations, the unemployment rate is about 50%.
“A lot of tribes don’t have internet,” Malerba said. “They’re without running water or electricity, no functioning kitchens. When COVID hit, how were they supposed to teach kids remotely? How can you isolate patients when you have no negative-pressure rooms? How can you practice proper hygiene without running water?”
She said the average annual expenditure for health care in the United States is $10,000 per person. Among tribal populations, it’s $3,900.
“Tribes don't tax their citizens,” she said. “That’s why economic development is so important for them.”
Malerba said she won’t be fully briefed on the Biden administration’s policies regarding Native Americans until her appointment becomes official. But, she said, she’s been working on economic issues as a member of the Treasury Tribal Advisory Committee and expects to continue doing so as treasurer.
“It’s what I did when I left L+M for the Mohegan Tribe,” she said. “If I wanted to help the tribe, then I needed to go to work for the tribe.”
Now, she’ll be working for all of Indian Country.
“What makes me proudest is that I had such humble beginnings — one of seven children, a shy girl from Uncasville,” Malerba said. “The biggest thing in life for me was being born to loving parents. I so wish they were here to see this."
"I hope it's inspirational for people who have struggled a little in life," she said.