Indian Tribes in the heartland have focused on the opportunities presented by the farm bill in a more organized way than ever before. To help Native American communities shape this massive legislation, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community commissioned the Regaining Our Future report to analyze the risks and opportunities for Indian Country in the 2018 Farm Bill.

The report, authored by Janie Simms Hipp, Esq. and Colby D. Duren, Esq. of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas, School of Law, is the most comprehensive analysis ever conducted on Farm Bill issues as they relate to Indigenous populations in the United States.

The Regaining Our Future report discusses how the economic and dietary health of Native Americans can be greatly influenced by the 2018 Farm Bill and reflects that, in order to make those gains, Native communities must be prepared to better advocate for their interests, defend programs on which their most vulnerable members depend, and look for new ways to achieve greater food sovereignty and food security.

As the report notes, in recent years, there has been a growing grassroots movement within Indian Country to reclaim Native food-ways and establish better food security. But federal policies that lack any tailoring to Indian Country continue to have an outsized and often detrimental influence on Native nutrition, agriculture, ranching, farming, conservation, trade and forestry.

“Today a food and nutritional health crisis grips most of Indian Country. As Congress prepares to shape the next Farm Bill, there has never been a more critical time for Native Americans to unite to defend our interests,” said Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) Chairman Charles R. Vig. “Tribal governments, Native producers, environmental stewards, and Native community members must work together to involve Congress in helping us solve this crisis.” The Report contains specific suggestion for each title of the Farm Bill, including Commodities to Conservation, Trade, Research, Forestry, Crop Insurance and Nutrition.

The significance of the report, beyond the farm bill, is that Tribes are expanding their focus from enforcement of their Treaties with the United States to economic development in an attempt to drive down the high unemployment rates (averaging 80 percent on South Dakota’s nine Reservations.)  The Treaties remain important to Indian law but are not a business plan.

The report goes on to say:

“Indian Country’s relationship with the Farm Bill has clearly been complex. We have sought changes to sections that directly affect us and we have partnered with others, Native and non-Native alike, to have our voices heard. But we have not taken a deeper, more targeted approach to exerting ourselves in large ways across the entire Farm Bill landscape. Tribal lands are deeply engaged in agriculture. In fact, more than 50 million acres of our lands are engaged to some extent in food production and agriculture. Our lands participate in the programs. Our people have farm and ranch loans and guaranteed loans. Our Tribal Colleges and Universities receive funding under the Research Title. Our food products are the subject of trade and are affected by the Trade Title. And on and on. We are entering a period when Indian Country voices in the Farm Bill debate need to be louder. The full scope of food and agriculture programs must be available to us in order to turn the page on the significant food and health-related impacts within our own Native communities.

Our rural reservation, and isolated communities are in dire need of infrastructure and economic development focus.”   (emphasis added)

The report has been presented to the Secretary of Agriculture and to the Congress. It also recognizes that for rural Tribes, far from population centers, agriculture drives the economy and represents the best opportunity for economic development. The new Native Farm Bill Coalition has developed in its wake and now has over one-quarter of all Tribes in the United States as coalition members.

Secretary Perdue, the point person for the Administration on barriers to rural prosperity, has met with Tribes and pledged to continue government-to-government relations between USDA and Tribes. The Secretary then asked Diane Cullo, a senior advisor, follow up on his meeting by meeting with many Tribal representatives to discuss the Report and the importance of agriculture to rural Tribes. Joining Diane Cullo were representatives from Farm Services Administration, the Forest Service, Rural Development, the Office of Tribal Relations (at USDA) and the newly confirmed Assistant Secretary for Congressional Affairs, Ken Barbic.

During House consideration of the farm bill, the House approved on an amendment by Congresswoman Kristi Noem (R-SD) to have USDA match funds devoted to Indian higher education by States and 1862 land grant universities. While this farm bill failed, the amendment was agreed to on a bipartisan basis without any opposition and will likely be included in the next version of the farm bill. It is being called the “New Beginnings Initiative” or Wokini in Lakota developed by Dr. Barry Dunn, President at SDSU. The Wokini proposal is destined to become an important initiative for Indian students, agriculture and land grant universities for education must be the first step in creating a private sector economy on the Reservations.

In short, whenever the farm bill becomes law, the Tribal effort to increase their focus on USDA will continue along with the central importance of agriculture development for rural Tribes.


On a related note, the Keepseagle vs. USDA litigation, which has been pending for almost 20 years, alleging discrimination in farm loan programs is coming to a close. The Supreme Court has denied an appeal and this action leaves the settlement approved by the District Court in place. The final payments for damages are due to be distributed to successful claimants on or around May 25. The remaining funds will go into a trust for future investments in Indian Country to assist farmers and ranchers and the trust will be led by a court appointed Board of Trustees.

About the author: Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.  Formerly, he was Counsel to South Dakota Legal Services, based on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Farm Corporation.