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Guest Opinion. 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 – recently released its Final Report. The report includes 66 recommendations to further advance and embed equity into policies, practices and processes at the agency.  

The Commission’s report moves forward important proposals to help fulfill the Biden administration’s commitment to make USDA’s work more equitable, including several recommendations that 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 Native Farm Bill Coalition (NFBC) will continue to advocate for the necessary authorities to ensure USDA has the tools and resources it needs to implement the recommendations. These recommendations will improve USDA’s reach and presence in Indian Country, addressing  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 final 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.

The authors are the co-chairs of the Native Farm Bill Coalition, a nationwide initiative to lift up the voices of Native American producers and tribal governments to advance common policy agenda. Kari Jo Lawrence is the CEO of the Intertribal Agriculture Council and served on the USDA Equity Commission’s agriculture subcommittee. Cole Miller is the chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.