It was fitting that the afternoon session of this month’s National Congress of American Indians meeting in Washington, DC, featured, as the lead speaker, former North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan.
After leaving office, Senator Dorgan created a center for Native American Youth and remains an advocate for improving living conditions on reservations. At the event, Senator Dorgan urged attendees to continue to “fight on behalf of people living in third-world conditions to get them adequate housing, health care and an education system that gives Native kids opportunity.”
Immediately following the Senator, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack opened his remarks by crediting USDA’s Senior Adviser for Tribal Relations Janie Hipp, with “Opening my eyes and USDA to our important role and relationship with the Tribes.” He said Ms. Hipp, who reports directly to him, has worked with USDA and the Forest Service to help them understand what true government-to-government consultation entails, noting that there have been thousands of consultations since the start of the Obama Administration, and Native Americans have had input on more than 60 regulations.
It is important, said the Secretary, that USDA works closely with the Tribes because “You are America’s first farmers.” The Secretary said that as part of the Keepseagle settlement, USDA is moving to set up a Native Farmers and Ranchers Council, and is moving to address the challenges Indian Country faces when it comes to water quality, broadband service, homeownership and home refinancing. The Secretary noted that many Native homeowners with USDA mortgages may be able to benefit from a pilot streamlined home refinancing program, enabling them to reduce their interest rates. He also said USDA is moving aggressively to promote business development in Indian country with a goal of creating new, sustainable jobs.
In discussing the Keepseagle settlement, he said that “We take our responsibility seriously and are working to change the culture at USDA.” There is strength, said the Secretary, in diversity.
In conclusion, the Secretary announced funding to improve dietary guidelines in Native schools, create health recipes, and provide healthy snacks and community gardens, part of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move in Indian Country” initiative.
To find out more about USDA’s initiatives to support Native Americans click here.