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USDA Equity Commission Final Report is a missed opportunity for Indian Country

Reaction from Native Farm Bill Coalition Co-Chairs


February 28, 2024


The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Equity Commission – an independent body

with 41 commission and subcommittee members charged with evaluating USDA

programs and services and developing recommendations on how USDA can reduce

barriers – released its Final Report (Report) with 66 recommendations to further

advance and embed equity into policies, practices and processes at the agency.


Kari Jo Lawrence, CEO of the Intertribal Agriculture Council and Co-Chair of the Native

Farm Bill Coalition, served on the Equity Commission’s agriculture subcommittee. She

and fellow Native Farm Bill Coalition Co-Chair Cole Miller, Chairman of the Shakopee

Mdewakanton Sioux Community, shared the following reactions to the Report.


“The Commission’s Report advances important proposals to help fulfill the Biden

Administration’s commitment to make USDA’s work more equitable, including several

recommendations which will benefit Tribal governments and Native producers,

including, but not limited to:


● Elevating the Office of Tribal Relations

● Ensuring equitable language and culturally competent access to USDA services

● Lowering the threshold for Tribal agricultural and food businesses to access the

USDA’s supplier and procurement programs

● Increasing funding for the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program

(FRTEP) that is formula-based rather than competitive

● Expanding Cooperative Extension Service programming to marginalized

communities

● Increasing financial support for 1994 Tribal Land Grant Colleges and Universities

(TCUs)

● Removing eligibility restrictions on receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance

Program (SNAP) benefits and food from the Food Distribution Program on

Indian Reservations in the same month

● Prioritizing Rural Development funding and programming for rural economically

distressed communities and historically underserved communities, including

Federally Recognized Tribes

● Opening new forms of credit for producers by removing restriction to the

intermediary relending program (IRP) that prevent IRP’s low interest loans from

benefitting agricultural producers

● Ensuring representation on County Committees reflects the populations of the

counties each respective committee serves


“As Congress begins to negotiate the next Farm Bill, the NFBC will continue to advocate

for the necessary authorities to ensure USDA has the tools and resources it needs to

implement the recommendations that will improve USDA’s reach and presence in Indian

Country, and other critical priorities that were highlighted in the USDA’s Equity Action

Plan 2022 (2022 Plan) and its Equity Action Plan 2023 Update (2023 Update) but are

missing from the Commission’s Report. These priorities include improving access to

USDA programs for Native farmers and ranchers, establishing an office of self-

governance and authorizing Tribes to exercise their 638 self-governance authority.

“Nevertheless, we are concerned that the Commission’s Report doesn’t adequately

address a major source of inequities in Indian Country: lack of awareness of the

importance and uniqueness of Tribal sovereignty and the federal government’s treaty

obligations to Tribes. The Report largely ignores the fact that Tribal governments are

sovereign, federally recognized governments, and often makes the mistake of

mentioning Indigenous people as an underserved group without reference to Tribes or

the status of Tribal trust lands that impact program accessibility. There are a number of

recommendations that do not specifically mention Tribes, even though they could

benefit from the provisions. The terms BIPOC and Indigenous do not have a foundation

in federal Indian law, and therefore do not have the same meaning as Tribes, which are

sovereign governments with jurisdiction over Tribal lands – jurisdiction to the exclusion

of states and counties that surround Tribal lands. The failure to explicitly mention Tribes

minimizes an important reality in Indian Country’s relationship with the federal

government and makes it easier for the USDA to continue to be dismissive of Indian

Country’s concerns in the future. Indeed, couching Indian Country’s priorities as

“Indigenous” seeks to make the 574 federally recognized Tribes, as well as Native

Hawaiians, fit into a pre-defined, monolithic box, rather than acknowledging that Tribes

and Tribal people have the right to define how they engage in agriculture and with the

USDA.


“The Report’s omission of Tribal trust land and jurisdictional issues undermines the

comprehensive nature of the Commission's work, as these issues are often at the core

of the barriers Indian Country encounters at USDA – barriers that are different than

those faced by non-Native disadvantaged communities and require unique solutions.

“It is a major disappointment that the Commission did not hold a Tribal consultation in

the development of this Report, which could have helped identify some of the Report’s

shortcomings. The Commission was formed to address racial equity, but its Report and

recommendations are not as comprehensive as they could have been.

“We are also deeply concerned to see USDA – separate from the Commission’s Report –

take a step back from its equity commitments outlined in its 2022 Plan in its recently

published 2023 Update. Specifically, USDA’s 2023 Update omits stabilizing an office of

self-governance, something Indian Country has been calling on USDA to establish since

the FDPIR and Tribal Forest Protection pilots were established in the 2018 Farm Bill.

While the 2023 Update notes that “[a] dedicated Office of Tribal Relations Tribal

Empowerment Team will increase awareness about … opportunities that promote tribal

self-determination principles” this is not a substitution for self-determination in

practice, and without nuance, may confuse what true self-determination is.

“Because Native people have experienced firsthand the difficulties of getting USDA

senior leadership and staff to administer the agency’s programs in an equitable way

toward Indian Country in the past, we look forward to seeing a new commitment from

USDA leadership to implementing these recommendations and expanding access to

USDA programs for Tribes, Native producers and other disadvantaged communities. It is

our hope that the USDA will lean on the newly seated Tribal Advisory Committee, as

well as engage in Tribal Consultations to supplement the Commission’s Report and

inform the Department’s future Equity Plans pertaining to Indian Country.”


Cole Miller Kari Jo Lawrence

Chairman Chief Executive Officer

Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Intertribal Agriculture Council

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