An Indian agriculture title could help the poorest Americans

By Marshall Matz

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

There are approximately two million American Indians and Alaska Natives on 565 federally recognized American Indian Reservations in the United States. The United States has a very unique legal and political relationship with Indian tribes and Alaska Native entities under the Constitution with an unusual history of treaties, court decisions and federal statutes.

While America granted African Americans the right to vote in 1870 through adoption of the Fifteen Amendment, and it granted women the right to vote in 1920 through the Nineteenth Amendment, it was not until Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924 that American Indians finally were allowed this fundamental right.


Lower Brule Chairman Michael Jandreau meeting with Kim Teehee, White House, Domestic Policy.

Administrations of both political parties have recognized the legal sovereignty of Indian Tribes and talked about maintaining “government-to-government” relationships with them, but the sad truth is that this talk is hollow. Efforts to promote economic progress for most Tribes have totally failed. The one exception is for Tribes located close to major urban areas that were able to promote gaming. For most Reservations, especially those in rural areas, the situation is just terrible.

The unemployment rate on many Reservations is over 50% on and can reach 80%. The social impact is profound - failing health, failing education, failing nutrition, alcoholism, and despair. Not much has changed in the last 35 years since the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, when Indian activists occupied the Oglala village of Wounded Knee for 72 days demanding help. Washington made promises to end the crisis and quickly forgot them as soon as the TV cameras turned away.

Today, many rural, agricultural Tribes are looking to USDA and the next farm bill to help break this cycle by creating a private sector industry on the reservation. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) recently passed a resolution calling for the development of an Indian Agriculture Act that would empower USDA to apply the full range of its farm, rural development, and other programs to spur the creation of a successful private-based and agriculture-focused economy on rural Indian reservations.

This Act could then become a title in the next farm bill.

For many years, the exclusive focus for Tribes was to enforce the treaties. While the treaties remain the foundation of Indian law and Tribal sovereignty, there is a growing recognition that a private sector economy is needed to improve the quality of life.

As envisioned by the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and Chairman Michael Jandreau, who proposed the NCAI resolution, an Indian Agriculture Act could do a number of things:

Establish an Indian Agriculture Office within the Rural Development mission area to coordinate a department-wide Indian initiative.

Provide grants to Tribal members who want to enter farming and ranching.

Provide grants and loans for value-added agriculture businesses.

Expand training and extension services on reservations.

Provide farm and rural development loans on favorable terms and guarantee them. (Since Tribal land is held in trust by the Federal government, obtaining credit is major challenge on the reservations.)

Upgrade essential infrastructure including irrigation.

Purchase Tribal food products for USDA nutrition programs.

Establish a special broadband program for the reservations.

Some of these initiatives could build upon existing USDA programs. Where additional funding is needed for special reservation needs, these could come from establishing an Indian Agriculture Economic Development Trust Fund. The Fund would be capitalized with revenue generated from the sale of electricity by the Western Area Power Authority. Tribal lands were flooded to build Western dams. Treaties and court decisions grant the Tribes the right to the water, yet little of the revenue produced from this water and Tribal land is shared with the Tribes. (See: “Dammed Indians” by Dr. Michael Lawson.)

American Indian reservations in the Missouri River Valley today have more in common with less developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa than with the rest of the United States. The world may be united economically, but that development does not extend to rural farming Tribes.

The next Farm Bill has the potential to establish and expand a private sector economy on the poorest reservations by boosting farm production. This would help Tribes and the U.S. farm sector too.

Recognizing this potential, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilasck has a Senior Advisor for Tribal Affairs, Janie Hipp, Esq. The White House and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are also considering this issue. In order to realize this possibility, however, it will take Congressional leadership and buy-in by key agriculture stakeholders . . . you.

About the Author: Marshall Matz, former Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, is with OFW Law in Washington, D.C.

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