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Native American Heritage Month – A Time for USDA to Consult with Tribes and Learn from Them

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack (center left, second row) meets with members of the USDA Council for Native American Farming and Ranching (CNAFR) in Washington, D.C. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack (center left, second row) meets with members of the USDA Council for Native American Farming and Ranching (CNAFR) in Washington, D.C. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

Late last month it was my privilege to join representatives from multiple USDA agencies at Wisconsin’s Mole Lake Indian Reservation to discuss ways to work together, across agency lines, to provide needed services to Tribes.  Thanks to funding support through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other USDA programs, the Obama Administration has boosted federal support for Tribes, but now we are working to step up our effort even more, to work as one to support projects and initiatives that the Tribes have told us they support and need.  As we observe  Native American Heritage Month, it is important to note that this effort is consistent with Secretary Vilsack’s “One USDA” policy.  The intention is to have “one USDA speaking with one voice.”

Because we are such a large department, sometimes those seeking services just don’t know where to start.  At USDA we are moving to unify our brand identity and broaden our outreach.  We know that when a member of a Tribe approaches a USDA representative, they don’t want a process.  They want an answer, and we should be giving them answers from all of our agencies. That was the message I shared with my USDA colleagues at Mole Lake.

We’re not just working internally.  Our efforts are apparent to all.  In Wisconsin, for example, Rural Development is partnering to help Menominee Tribal Enterprises with a grant through our Rural Energy for America Program.  The modest $250,000 grant will be combined with nearly $900,000 from additional funding sources and will be used to purchase and install an energy efficient boiler that the “Enterprises” will use to generate steam for use in kilns for wood drying and for the energy efficient heating of its facilities.

One exciting effort that is making a real difference in Indian Country is StrikeForce.  The StrikeForce Initiative is designed to provide relief to persistent high-poverty counties by accelerating technical and financial assistance delivered through the Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Farm Service Agency (FSA), and Rural Development (RD). To implement the StrikeForce Initiative, agencies work in partnership to improve outreach and provide assistance to Tribes, communities and farmers. Last year the initiative was expanded to several additional states, including Southeast Alaska and the Dakotas.    The focus in Alaska, North and South Dakota as well as other states will be to provide accelerated program outreach assistance to American Indians/Alaska Natives. As One USDA, we hope to improve tribal access to all USDA programs.

For more information on StrikeForce and One USDA in your state, please contact the USDA Office of Tribal Relations.

2 Responses to “Native American Heritage Month – A Time for USDA to Consult with Tribes and Learn from Them”

  1. mark franco says:

    One of the things that will help the USDA better communicate with tribes is to look at all of the tribes who are the original keepers of the lands you now are responsible for. A case in point is to look at states like California where the tribal status of over 100 tribes is unclear because of the unratified treaties in that state. This leaves tribes out of the consultation process because they do not appear on the “official” BOA roles any more. Look at the historical record of the past and that of the present of tribes like the Winnemem Wintu in Northern California to get a sense of the scale where consultation is needed.

  2. Bobbie Jo Henry says:

    Not only are tribes who are not federally-recognized being left out but also trust landowners of individually-held and public domain allotments. I believe any federal register seeking public comments will also accept comments from Indian allotment co-owners or other Indians. Allotment owners could also form a type of owners organization such as a condominium homeowners association, where a democratic process could be used, with a lease council agreement for instance, that’s reviewed by the Solicitor’s office for legal sufficiency and approved by the BIA. Creating and operating such an owner’s association would require each owner to give up a little of their ownership authority to a small board (3 coowners) who would be elected from the ownership members, to act on behalf of the multiple owners to meet with experts and other professionals. Examples of matters for discussion and decisions would be evaluating current conditions (housing, roads, service line agreements, roads, etc.); deciding where new housing, etc., for other coowners could be placed, maintaining allotment boundaries and corner monuments, preventing trespass or other illegal activities on the allotment, pet controls, peaceful enjoyment, trash pick up and site beautification, etc. In the old days, California Indians placed their camps in certain areas dependent on the season and availability of water, shade, pinenut groves, sedges to make baskets, etc. Today, I think such an Indian community organization could also be useful to apply for and obtain grants for infrastructure development, etc. You never know what good can happen with a group of sincere Indians get together to work on an important matter.

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