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Settlement with Native American Farmers and Ranchers Another Indication of a New Civil Rights Era at USDA

The announcement last week that USDA and the Department of Justice have reached an agreement with Native American farmers and ranchers to settle alleged incidents of discrimination by USDA marks the start of a new civil rights era.  This isn’t just talk.  It is meaningful action on the part of the Obama Administration.

Since becoming Agriculture Secretary last year, Tom Vilsack has worked to settle this and other cases in order to end the era of discrimination that has affected our customers and our employees alike.  As the Secretary said in his announcement, the settlement with the affected farmers and ranchers can never undo the wrongs Native Americans may have experienced in past decades, but the settlement does provide some measure of relief.

In addition to the monetary terms of the settlement, I applaud USDA for agreeing to create a Federal Advisory Council for Native American Farmers, an ombudsman’s position to address farm program issues as they relate to Native American farmers and ranchers, as well as others who are socially disadvantaged. We are also providing enhanced technical assistance to ensure that those who have had trouble accessing our programs in the past will have an easier time in the future.

In addition to the settlement, USDA has adopted an active tribal consultation action plan, is adopting a new regulation governing tribal consultation and collaboration, and is taking other steps, including requiring the maintenance of records of tribal consultation, document results, and hold leadership accountable.

Finally, the Secretary established the Office of Tribal Relations and I was honored to accept his invitation to head the office and serve as a senior advisor, reporting directly to him and his office.

While this is an important step, it only marks a single step on a long journey, but we have started a journey in the right direction.  I share the Secretary’s hope that other civil rights cases will also be settled and funded.  While we cannot change the past, working together, government to government, we can and will turn the page on a new civil rights era and provide equitable service to all seeking support from USDA.

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