Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to participate in the National Congress of American Indian’s (NCAI) mid-year meeting in Reno, Nevada. The NCAI meeting was a warm and familiar place for me, as I recently left a position as NCAI’s Director of Economic Development to assume my current position as Director of USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations.
While I was in Nevada, I wanted to be certain to see Secretary Vilsack’s StrikeForce Initiative in action, as I was aware that Nevada’s USDA leaders had selected Nevada’s Indian reservations for their StrikeForce focus. What a day I had on June 26! It was tremendous to experience the mutual vigor among tribal leaders, USDA leaders, and their respective teams.
After a listening session with tribal leaders in Reno, we headed out to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, approaching the famous desert lake from the west. We emerged from rolling hills near the tiny town of Sutcliffe where USDA Rural Development has worked with the tribe to install a water treatment plant to provide clean water to the community.
Through a series of meetings and site visits, I had the chance to experience the working relationship that USDA has with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe on tribal initiatives ranging from business and broadband development to conservation practices with producers, hoop houses and local farming and ranching, clean water programs, microloan opportunities, community facility construction and more.
Listening to Pyramid Lake Vice-chairman Terrace James, Tribal Administrator Della John, and Grants Department Director Sandra Hicks explain the team approach between Tribal department directors and the grants department office, I realized that grantsmanship runs deep in the culture and practice of the Tribe. And the elected officials look to their administration to keep the development initiatives of the Tribe on track. By visiting the projects leveraged with USDA grant, loan, and cost-share funding, I also became aware that this tribe has entered into a co-investment approach with USDA and other partners to bring the Tribe’s vision to reality. I was also delighted to hear about the Tribe’s plans to create a stronger environment for economic development through its broadband buildout and the implementation of business support policies.
Upon our return to Reno, I joined with USDA leaders and a team from the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension who are working together with ten Nevada tribes on a healthy foods access project they call Beyond the Hub. The project has a dual focus of enabling tribes to grow more of their own food as well as providing better access to Food and Nutrition Service’s many food security programs. What better way for tribes to share the resources of the United States Department of Agriculture than through partnerships around food?
At the end of the day, as I think back on all that positive effort and energy, I see what I would call “bookends of empowerment”. One is the tribe’s capacity to seek out, acquire, and manage resources from partners and the internal strength it has created by empowering its departments to engage in those processes. The other is Secretary Vilsack’s empowering of USDA agencies to collaborate with each other and with their customers to better facilitate local growth and highlight opportunities offered by USDA.
To learn more about USDA’s partnership with Tribes click here.