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WASHINGTON — When Natives get hired for positions in Washington, D.C., it’s usually at the Departments of the Interior or Health and Human Services, where the Indian Health Service is housed. But when tapped to join the Biden administration, Heather Dawn Thompson didn’t want to toil in the usual places.

Instead, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribal citizen, lawyer and advocate for tribes and Indians said in an interview with Tribal Business News that she wanted to make progress at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Appointed in January as the director of USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations, Thompson has already conducted high-profile tribal consultations, started building a hall of tribal nations filled with Native flags and artwork, and has gotten the agency off to a strong start working with the White House Council on Native American Affairs. 

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“What I’ve seen in the first few months of the administration have been really substantive conversations and an equalization of access, largely because of online platforms,” Thompson said of the interactions with tribes.

Some in Indian Country already want her to do more by fostering improved tribal consultation to include tenets of free, prior and informed consent to tribes on all sides of issues over which the agency makes decisions. 

They also want her to help change the agency’s pandemic debt relief program for socially-disadvantaged farmers, an effort that’s currently stalled in the courts, and hope she will institutionalize Indigenous ideologies within a department that has has often been criticized for inequity and discrimination involving Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians. 

Thompson, a Harvard Law graduate who’s maintained deep tribal roots, assures everyone that more efforts are indeed on the way. She shared some of her goals in a recent interview with Tribal Business News.


How did you come to USDA, and what do you hope to accomplish at the agency?

I’ve been a practicing attorney in Indian Country for about 20 years now, with a significant focus on rural tribal economic development and sort of a subspecialty in tribal agriculture. In that capacity in private practice, in particular, I had a great deal of interaction with the USDA. The USDA has rural development within it, which has the water programs, the electricity programs, the broadband programs. So, in private practice, my clients had a lot of interaction. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service is within USDA; we obviously have a lot of sacred sites that are located on U.S. Forest Service land. And, of course, we have the Food and Nutrition Service, which runs the commodities program and SNAP and WIC in Indian Country.

I’ve gotten to know USDA quite a bit in private practice, and when I was asked if I’d like to join the team as an appointee, it was a natural selection for me to want to continue to progress my advocacy work for Indian Country within the USDA.


For many Natives, if they choose to work for the federal government, they end up being at Interior or HHS. Why was it important for you to join the USDA?

One of the challenges at USDA is that it’s not as well known in Indian Country, so it doesn’t have as many folks from Indian Country working within it. I saw it as a real opportunity. In particular, there are a number of barriers or impediments at USDA because it hasn’t been historically quite as involved in Indian Country. Those barriers I was aware of being in private practice trying to access USDA programs. The tribal leaders raised them again when we had a consultation early in the year (after) the president’s Executive Order on Racial Equity and Barriers. I felt this was just a real opportunity to bring some Indian law and Indian policy expertise. I had really amazing predecessors in Janie Hipp, in particular, who is now the general counsel, who set an excellent example of the great work that can be done at USDA.


You talked about the barriers Native Americans face in dealing with the agency. The Keepseagle case was settled years ago now, and folks during the Obama administration hoped that the settlement would go a long way in addressing some of the longstanding inequities. But there’s more to do. How are you trying to address more of the barriers?

That’s a great question, and I think Keepseagle did an excellent job at getting this conversation started and getting USDA (headed) in the right direction. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to come on board, to help finish the things that were started in that time period. I’ll give you sort of two examples, and some of this stuff is statutory, which makes it even more challenging. 

Land ownership is one example. There are inconsistent statutes on how tribal land is treated at USDA, and I think at other federal agencies as well. And (there are) some inconsistencies, internally, where trust lands are categorized as federal lands. When that happens, for some programs at least, some programs are not available to federal lands. Understandably, you don’t provide tax dollars for let’s say the National Park Service to apply for a federal grant, which would be considered federal lands. So one of our goals at USDA that I shared with our General Counsel Janie Hipp is to do a full review of what definitions we currently have for trust land at USDA, and to provide consistency across the board, to make sure that tribes and Native Americans who own lands in trust are eligible for our programs. Some of that will take some statutory change, but we’re really looking forward to streamlining that and to remove that as a barrier.

Another example is how tribal governments own their economic development arms. Tribes are unique, as we know. They don’t have a tax base (in) the same way that states and local governments might in order to generate revenue to run their governments, whether it be roads or schools or police departments. They have to participate in the private marketplace in order to bring in a significant portion of that revenue, and that looks like grocery stories, that looks like owning gas stations, that looks like the better known one — where appropriate — owning casinos, fisheries. Participation in the private marketplace would be akin to the Department of Revenue or the Department of Treasury for another government, but it’s a hybrid, and it is not clear in all federal programs where those entities fall. 


What do you mean by that? 

There are some programs at USDA and throughout the federal government that are very specific for governments. And there are some programs that are very specific for private corporations. Tribal-owned companies tend to be somewhere in between. They’re sort of both, and they’re a hybrid. A lot of times when Congress wrote these laws, unfortunately, they didn’t always remember the uniqueness of tribes. That’s another example of what could end up being a barrier sometimes. 

With the Office of the General Counsel, we’re taking note of how we categorize things internally and what statutes might need some edits to make sure all tribal entities — whether they be ANCs, tribal-owned corporations, tribal governments or however a tribe and a Native community is empowering itself economically — that they’re eligible for the appropriate programs at USDA.


For those barriers that you’ve brought up so far, do you see Congress as being open to making changes that would help the agency improve?

As a federal employee, as you know, I have absolutely no opinion on Congress’ position. [Laughs.] What I can say is where there is discretion that the agency has, that’s certainly something that we’re going to take. 


It’s been fascinating to find out that the USDA is actually the seventh largest bank in the United States in terms of the loans and financing it does. What are some financial issues that Natives have with the USDA involving its banking role?

A lot of USDA programs are run similarly to a community bank. They are government programs, they are often subsidized. However, they do have normal underwriting requirements. With a lot of private banks, tribes have run into challenges. Myself, in private practice representing tribes, they would have multiple interesting conversations with banks, trying to explain what a tribal government is and what are the appropriate documents for them to request in order to open an account. That is something we hope will never be the case at USDA. By providing a lot of team education on what the different tribally-owned entities might look like, what founding documents are normal and that they might have, USDA is looking to be a leader in that ‘bank space’ — that we understand what underwriting a project in Indian Country looks like, that we understand what trust land is and the different forms of land ownership in Indian Country, and the different forms of tribal government and tribal entities and Native American ownership. That’s our goal: to make sure that as the seventh largest bank, that we’re the best bank for Indian Country.


It seems like it would be natural for USDA to be a leader in that area, working with so many Native producers and tribes.

Absolutely. We have some of those best practices in place already, and we’re looking to expand them and to provide that leadership outside of government as well.


Heather Dawn ThompsonHeather Dawn Thompson, director of the USDA's Office of Tribal Relations, visited Native farmers and tribal leadership earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of USDA)The USDA doesn’t have Indian preference in hiring or Buy Indian authority. Are you looking at those areas as something you could change?

Those are both federal statutes. There is a Buy Indian act that applies directly to IHS and BIA. And there’s Indian preference hiring, as well, that’s statutorily applicable. This is a challenge for a lot of federal agencies that directly serve Indian Country that don’t have these authorizations. We still all share the same trust and treaty responsibility. Without those authorizations, there are different things that we and other agencies can do. What we can do is make sure that our hiring practices very clearly target individuals who have experience in Indian Country and have an appreciation for what that trust responsibility is. It might not be a specific Indian hiring preference, but we certainly institute preferences for individuals who have the prerequisite skill set to serve our tribal nations.


Are there any overlaps in functions between Interior and USDA that need to be addressed?

There’s not quite as much overlap as one might think, in the sense that Interior sort of designs a lot of policy that is overarching, whereas USDA tends to be more of the financial arm of the federal government. But with that said, there definitely are areas where we have synergies and overlap. Federal land management is certainly one of them. A lot of folks don’t realize that the Forest Service is under USDA, whereas most of the other federal land programs, like BLM and the National Park Service, are under the Department of the Interior.

I can give a couple of examples of how we try to coordinate better. One is the White House reinstituted the White House Council on Native American Affairs, and that is a Cabinet-level council that all Cabinet members are participants in. The Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary Vilsack, is co-chair of two of the committees of that council. One is the Climate Change, Tribal Homelands and Treaties Committee, and he is co-chair with Secretary Haaland and the EPA on that. And he is also co-chair of the Health Committee, along with the secretaries of HHS and the VA. Through that interagency working group, the staff is appointed by the secretaries to work together on the issues of coordination and collaboration. A lot of the topics fall under those two committees in particular. On the Tribal Homelands and Treaties Committee, we have a lot of discussions between the Forest Service and the other federal land agencies at the Department of the Interior about how we can streamline how we work with Indian Country. 

We don’t have the same authority as the Department of the Interior, so a lot of tribes, for example, are very comfortable and familiar with what’s called the 638 law of the Department of the Interior, and the Forest Service does not have that authorization. So how can we still make tribes feel included and have a voice in federal land management, particularly over sacred sites? That’s a really common conversation in that working group. To address that together, we’re working on several MOUs that will be announced later at the White House Tribal Nations Summit (in November). 


Do you sit in on the White House Council on Native American Affairs meetings?

The staff work weekly, and when the secretaries get together, I am the secretary’s plus one for that meeting. 


You’ve observed the relationship between Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Haaland. How do they get along? 

It’s really much more than a professional relationship. They have become quite close friends. I personally am delighted to see that relationship, one, because of the obvious synergies on Indian issues between USDA and the Department of the Interior, and then also because Secretary Vilsack has been in service as secretary before and that’s always nice to have that mentorship available when needed.


Many in Indian Country are following the Farm Service Agency’s efforts to cancel debt for socially-disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, including Native Americans. What is the status of the litigation against that program? What can you say about it?

Unfortunately, we are not able to comment on ongoing litigation. What I can say is that Secretary Vilsack came back in service because of his commitment to the socially-disadvantaged farmer community. However it is that USDA moves forward, it will be with the goal of better servicing the socially-disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.


When you say ‘however it is that USDA moves forward,’ I think of some reporting we’ve done where some Native folks have seen the legal challenges to the program as taking too long, so they would like relief sooner at a time when they really need it because of the pandemic. Have you thought about other ways USDA could be making that relief happen in a way that would be quicker, rather than having to wait for the legal process to play out?

I can’t comment one way or another on specific relief, whether it be in the litigation or other ways. I can just say that overall, for all the USDA programs, you’ve probably seen there’s a Justice40 Executive Order to prioritize 40 percent of renewable resources in renewable energy to socially-disadvantaged communities. You’ve seen that there’s an executive order on racial equity. So every aspect of the work that USDA does takes into consideration empowerment of the socially-disadvantaged community.


Does the USDA understand that by announcing the program and indicating that relief would be going out by early summer of 2021 that some Native farmers and ranchers made decisions based on that guidance? Some say they are stuck in an even more difficult financial situation as a result of the lawsuit.

I’m not able to comment on that, but the secretary experienced similar frustrations with the litigation, I can imagine.


Indian farmers have told me they do a lot of communicating with the USDA via snail mail. Does the USDA have any money to help Natives with technological needs, either on the communications front or otherwise?

We’re very much thinking about broadband in general for rural Indian Country, which includes farmers, ranchers and everybody else in our communities. We have been very active in assisting NTIA with their Indian Country-focused broadband fund. If folks look at that closely, they will see it looks very different than a lot of other broadband programs, historically. It really empowers tribal nations to have more control over servicing and providing broadband in Indian Country. We think about it a lot, not only at USDA, but we’re also helping other federal agencies think it through as well.


How well do you think tribes are doing at advocating for their needs to the Biden administration?

With this administration, I think there’s a really strong relationship with Indian Country. I think the White House has heard from more tribal leaders over the last several months than many administrations have during their entire administration. One of the side effects of COVID is the increased use of Zoom and other online platforms. I think that’s been an equalizer for a lot of Indian Country. It’s very expensive for many of our communities to travel from very rural locations to Washington, D.C. to advocate. This new technological aspect of advocacy and work I think has really opened a lot of doors in general, combined with the fact that you have a very committed administration to working with tribal governments. 

At least at the USDA, we have tribal consultations, tribal listening sessions, in one form or another, in one of our agencies every week, and we have really institutionalized that relationship. In a recent article, one of the tribal leaders in southeast Alaska said he felt he had the first substantive conversation (with USDA) in 30 years. We’re really trying to move toward that, where we have working meetings, so that tribes don’t feel like they’re only hearing from us at the very end when something has been fully formed, or the converse of that being consulted at the very beginning, before we have anything concrete to discuss.


You note your successes on tribal consultations, but it still has to be a challenge given there are 574 federally-recognized tribes. How do you want to be doing it better?

Doing it at the right time is very important when you have enough substance to get substantive feedback. Targeting it to the right tribes that have a vested interest in the specific topic, and then it will be important, eventually, to go back in person. There are just some conversations that are very important, particularly in Indian Country, to be had in person, so we look forward to that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

About The Author
Rob Capriccioso
Senior Editor
Rob Capriccioso served as senior editor for Tribal Business News. An enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Capriccioso formerly served as the D.C. bureau chief for Indian Country Today from 2011 through 2017, and started at the publication in 2008 as a general assignment reporter. He has also contributed to Inside Higher Ed, Politico, The New York Times, Forbes, The Guardian and Campaigns & Elections.
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