- By Chez Oxendine
- Food | Agriculture
With the Farm Bill’s 2023 reauthorization on the horizon this fall, a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing this week revealed that tribal governments primarily want to govern themselves.
Much of the discussion during the hearing, which invited tribal leaders and agricultural industry experts to speak, centered on “638 programs,” which leverage the Indian Self Determination Education and Assistance Act’s Section 638 to give tribes more say in how programs like food distribution and inspection are handled.
The 2018 Farm Bill funded the launch of eight pilot 638 projects, which allowed participating tribes and organizations to substitute items in their Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) packages. Those substitutions allowed for more tribes to include more local, culturally relevant and fresher foods — in turn providing an economic boost to producers in the region.
The committee hearing also included discussions about improving USDA inspection procedures, USDA outreach, and technical assistance efforts, but each time talks returned to the central topic of self-governance. The common refrain among all the speakers at Wednesday’s hearing was: more of that, on a bigger scale, as an acknowledgement of existing federal responsibilities and trust obligations to tribes across the United States.
“First and foremost, the expansion of 638 and self-governance authorities is both an opportunity and obligation for the federal government,” Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska Chairman Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson said during his testimony. “Self-governance and the co-management that can go hand in hand with it are not gifts to Tribes. They are a recognition that the federal government cannot and does not have the right to tell our history upon our homelands or to shape the future of this place without us at the table.”
Petersen said the freedom to develop local and regional partnerships for food distribution, research, and inspections was crucial in Alaska, where food transport is often “difficult, costly, and volatile.” Petersen pointed to an existing 638 measure in the Alaskan tribal health system, in which tribes co-manage services typically handled solely by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service. That arrangement proved the efficacy of self-government policies, he said.
Expanding 638 compacting authority to the Department of Agriculture, therefore, was a “win-win” scenario for the government, tribes, and the public, Petersen said.
“Anything less than this self-governance would continue the gap between the rhetoric of co-management from our federal partners and the reality of what they can deliver using existing templates,” Petersen said. “Why re-create the wheel when it is 638 authority that has a demonstrated record for honoring Indigenous sovereignty and successful implementation?”
Self-governance programs, including those proposed by the Native Farm Bill Coalitions, would also improve the relationship between tribal governments and the USDA, according to Jay Spaan, executive director of the nonprofit Self-Governance Communication and Education Tribal Consortium (SGCETC). Closer government-to-government relationships could improve the latter agency’s understanding of Indian land law, which in turn could vastly improve USDA’s programming outreach and efficacy in Indian Country, for example.
To that end, Spaan said he supported an Office of Self Governance within the USDA to help that organization improve its 638 programs and expand them to other tribes.
“The benefit is that we've heard the USDA express concern about having the capacity or the knowledge to be able to negotiate with tribes. I think that an Office of Self Governance or even a single point of contact could really help to educate all the different programs,” Spaan said. “The USDA is a massive organization with lots of different departments, so having somebody that has that knowledge about what is self-governance, what is self-determination, we feel like having that will be very beneficial.”
That was also a sticking point for Abi Fain, director of policy and government relations at the Intertribal Agriculture Council. Fain said during her testimony that such an office was”critical” to improving self governance opportunities within the USDA.
“This would provide the expertise needed to negotiate 638 agreements across all of USDA in a centralized place, instead of spending USDA dollars to contract services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as has been the case with the 638 pilot projects from the 2018 Farm Bill,” Fain said during her testimony.
Fain also spoke on the need to expand 638 projects to include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Fain told Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) that applying 638 to both programs would provide “twofold” benefits: better administration at the local level, and supporting local producers through access to a brand new market.
“With regard to FDPIR, you're providing opportunities for fresher, higher quality food products to the community members…when the tribes are able to make those determinations for the good of their community, they can rely on their own ag operations or work directly with tribal producers who have otherwise been unable to participate in that type of program,” Fain said. “Within SNAP, it is an opportunity to administer a program at the local level, and to achieve greater efficiency and a greater impact because the administration of the program is happening on the ground by the people most familiar with the people that that program is supposed to be serving.”
The day after the hearing, legislation was introduced in the Senate that would allow for dual enrollment in both the FDPIR and SNAP programs for individuals that qualify for both. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, co-sponsored the legislation with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), chair of the committee, concluded the hearing by noting that enacting a new Farm Bill could be a “long way off,” but even so, as self-governance programs begin to grow, there could be a rocky road ahead for agencies unused to handling sovereign-to-sovereign relationships.
Schatz cautioned not to look at potentially difficult implementations as a failure of the programs themselves, but an adjustment period.
“Those people who are administering whatever programs they're administering don't understand what sovereignty means, and they don't understand the trust relationship, they don't understand the government to government relationship,” Schatz said. “I think we have to have an eye towards how hard it's going to be, to get agencies that are not accustomed to interacting with sovereigns to do so.”