I was honored last week to participate in the annual Native American Heritage Month observance at USDA’s Jefferson Auditorium. A near-capacity crowd watched as the Vietnam Era Veterans Intertribal Association presented the colors. That gesture was especially fitting, given this year’s theme of “Serving with Honor, Pride and Devotion: Country, Land and People.”
Following the blessing, given by Bahe Rock of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources Arthur “Butch” Blazer, a member of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, read a letter of support on behalf of Secretary Vilsack and noted that “When President Obama issued a proclamation designating November as Native American Heritage Month, it made me proud to be an American and a Native American.” He spoke of the continuing efforts of the Secretary to promote diversity in hiring at USDA.
That sentiment was echoed by speaker Jacqueline Pata, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Pata, a member of the Raven/Sockeye Clan of Tlingit Tribe of Alaska, praised the “new direction at USDA.” She lauded the Department for “Listening, but also lifting up diverse voices so they can be part of the conversation.”
“Agriculture,” said Pata, “is increasingly important…the number of Native American farmers is on the rise and agriculture is the fastest growing sector in Indian Country.” She noted that USDA provides a wide scope of services to Tribes and residents of reservations, and that Native Americans have much to contribute to rural America, including development of sustainable energy and working with USDA to reduce the incidence of childhood obesity. Still, much is left to accomplish. She noted that a significant number of of Native Americans still do not have adequate electricity or quality water and the death rate from diabetes is “189 percent higher” than the national average.
She also hailed the contribution of the many Native Americans who have served or are serving in the military, saying “Service is at the core of our belief system.”
As we approach a new year, USDA will continue to work to ensure that American Indians and Alaska Natives have full access to our programs, including those that promote and support Native American farming and ranching.