Located deep within the farm bill is a provision that could have a profound impact in the future. Section 7120 establishes a new USDA program entitled “New Beginning for Tribal Students.”

The new program authorizes the Secretary to make competitive grants, on a matching basis, to land grant colleges and universities that provide targeted support for tribal students.  The land grants can use the funds under this program for recruiting, tuition, tutoring, counseling, or other student services that would increase enrollment and retention at the university.  

The new national program started as the idea of Dr. Barry H. Dunn, President of South Dakota State University.  The premise of the program is that the challenges faced by American Indian people and students, in particular, on Indian Reservations are beyond reconciliation. There must be a new start. Unemployment on the nine Reservations in South Dakota averages 80% with all of the concomitant social problems that come from unemployment that high.  Other Reservations, particularly in the rural Midwest, face the same challenge.

Dr. Dunn hopes that an educated workforce will attract businesses and a private sector economy to the Reservations.  Companies can then move call centers from India to American Indian Reservations. When President Dunn first proposed the program on January 2, 2017, with the full support of the Board of Regents, he said:

“In Lakota, the word “Wokini” means “new life” or “a new beginning.” With this spirit, and with the utmost respect for the Lakota and Dakota people, the administration, faculty, staff and students of SDSU propose the creation of the “Wokini Initiative.”

“The new initiative will offer programming and support to those citizens of the nine tribal nations in South Dakota interested in gaining access to educational and advancement opportunities at South Dakota State University and enhanced research and outreach collaborations and programs with tribes, tribal colleges and other tribal organizations.”

At that time, a new national program was not anticipated. But Federal policy has changed many times over the years and American Indian unemployment is still sky high. The American dream does not exist on the Reservations. Then came “Wokini” and a New Beginning for Tribal Students. 

The farm bill provision and new program has not received much attention because there was no partisan disagreement on the provision or on funding, which is now in the House Agriculture Appropriations Bill.  The farm bill provision was agreed to without objection when offered on the House floor by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD; now Governor) and agreed to by Rep. Colin Peterson (D-MN; now Chairman Peterson.)  In the Senate, the provision was inserted into the Chairman’s draft at the request of Senator Thune (R-SD) with the support of Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI.)

The appropriation process has also been very bipartisan.  Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD) has led the way in the House but the effort has been embraced by both Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Rep. Lynn Cheney (R-WY). 

Universities across the country have supported the provision as has the Association of Public Land Grant Universities, APLU.  A wide range of universities from Wyoming and North Dakota State to Maine, Michigan State and Arkansas have all embraced the idea.  

The high unemployment rates on these Reservations impacts more than the Reservations, it impacts the economy of the entire state.  It is lost revenue for the state and greater expenses for the state.  It means spending more on social services, jails and treatment programs.   The Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for federal Treaty obligations but the Treaties, while still critical, are not a business plan. A New Beginning for Tribal Students may be just the thing to start a new federal approach to Indian policy.  The Tribes are ready and are focusing more and more on creating a private sector economy. 

Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.  His first legal position was with South Dakota Legal Services.