Tribal governments say they could increase American Indian and Alaska Native participation in a wide range of USDA programs if they can get the authority to run them on their own through the next farm bill.

Public Law 93-638, or the Indian Self Determination Act, already allows tribes to operate a few federal programs, including those offered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service. Tribes also have limited authority under the 2018 farm bill to run a small USDA food aid program specifically directed to tribes and to manage Forest Service land. In the view of the tribes, such “638" authority recognizes their power to manage federal programs.

Extending such 638 authority to more USDA programs, including conservation assistance, meat inspection and even the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, would recognize the inherent sovereignty tribes possess and help more tribal producers access these programs, Native American Agriculture Fund CEO Toni Stanger-McLaughlin told Agri-Pulse.

“Having a friendly face, having somebody that understands what you’re dealing with within your community is definitely going to increase access or participation, in my opinion, to those services,” Stanger-McLaughlin said. “And it strengthens the dollar value in those rural communities, so then we’ll have more employment in that region.”

Tribes that sign 638 contracts agree to administer the programs in accordance with certain laws and constitutional protections, though they also have the flexibility and autonomy to implement them in accordance with tribal laws and traditional practices.

Tribes currently have 638 authority to run the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, which provides USDA-purchased foods to low-income households in tribal communities.

Food packages in the program typically include specific foods determined by the agency, but the 2018 self-determination pilot program allows participating tribal communities to replace these foods with nutritionally-equivalent alternatives that can be procured from local producers. The Oneida Nation and Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin’s jointly operated FDPIR program, for example, purchases bison, ground beef, apples, white fish, wild rice and walleye from tribally owned orchards, farms and fisheries.

Kelsey Scott, the director of programs for the Intertribal Agriculture Council, said FDPIR has helped supply some of the tribal populations it serves with nutritionally and culturally appropriate food, while also generating business opportunities for local producers. Some of these producers have even seen increased demand for their products from outside of the program, providing them with more market opportunities, Scott said.

“It’s a fantastic investment in Indian Country agriculture,” Scott told Agri-Pulse.

Language in the forestry title of the 2018 farm bill also enabled tribes to take over the management of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management Lands under the Tribal Forest Protection Act (TFPA). The Tulalip Tribes of Washington are currently using the authority to oversee watershed restoration in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The Native Farm Bill Coalition, a partnership of more than 170 tribes, Intertribal groups and other Native organizations, has called for the 638 authorities included in both titles to be made permanent. The coalition has called for Congress to allow “full tribal authority” over the FDPIR program, rather than just control over sourcing. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., said at a recent roundtable that she has been working with Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., to draft legislation to do that.

In terms of the forestry title program, the coalition said it would like to see 638 contracts include funding to help tribes hire the staff and acquire the resources needed for TFPA efforts.

The coalition has also called for these authorities to be expanded to other parts of the farm bill. The authority, for instance, could be applied to other nutrition programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the agency’s Child Nutrition Programs, a report from the organization suggests.

Trenton Kissee, director of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, also suggests giving tribes 638 authority to train and certify their own meat inspectors. Such a program, he thinks, could merge federal standards for meat inspectors with individual tribes’ cultural dressing practices.

Plants would still be required to follow federal food safety regulations, even if tribes were given authority over meat inspection, Kissee said. But guidelines could also be tailored to practices or animals that may currently be given much thought in state and federal meat inspection programs.

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“We want tribal inspectors to be seen as on par with USDA,” Kissee said.

Several tribes have opened animal processing facilities and rely on state and federal inspection in order to sell their products. Operating their own inspection programs would encourage workforce development in tribal communities and provide tribes in remote areas with more consistent access to inspectors.

“We’re really fortunate in eastern Oklahoma,” Kissee said. “There’s a lot of places where you just flat out can’t get an inspector.”

Conservation programs also present 638 contract opportunities, according to the Native Farm Bill Coalition.

Tribal producers often face challenges enrolling in Natural Resources Conservation Service programs due to many issues, including highly fractionated ownership of land and trouble getting timely approval from the sluggish Bureau of Indian Affairs for enrollment of land the government holds in trust. 

Tribal governments are more familiar with these issues than federal agencies, and 638 authority would allow tribes to better support tribal producers, the report says.

Trenton_Kissee.jpgTrenton Kissee, Muscogee (Creek) Nation

The report also calls for Congress to allow tribes to “enroll all selected tribal trust lands into conservation programs and act as a pass-through for federal funding to be provided to participating trust land lessees,” which would open up additional opportunities to producers.

However, the USDA has been slow to recognize existing 638 authority, according to testimony from Intertribal Agriculture Council Director Kari Jo Lawrence at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing earlier this month.

The agency’s Food and Nutrition Service in fiscal years 2021 and 2022, leaned on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to handle the 638 contracting process for FDPIR, paying it $250,000 to do so.

Lawrence told lawmakers that expansion of 638 authority should not “be used as a backdoor fund for BIA.” The USDA should instead have an office and staff that handle that work, he said.

“With so many USDA agencies potentially well-suited for 638 agreements, it would not make sense for USDA to subcontract all of that work to an entirely different department, especially one as chronically overworked as BIA,” Lawrence said in her written testimony.

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