The highest unemployment rates in the country are on the Indian Reservations of the Missouri River Valley where unemployment averages 80%. A comprehensive program to attack Reservation unemployment has never been proposed by any President, any Administration. President Trump has an opportunity to establish a new Indian policy based on jobs and economic development.

President Andrew Jackson is considered by historians to be the architect of the Office of the President and the founder of the Democratic Party. He was also the architect of the Indian removal policy which pushed all Tribes West of the Mississippi.

It was President Ulysses Grant who first tried to change Indian policy and appointed Ely Parker, a Seneca, as the first commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. More recently, while both Republican and Democratic presidents have supported “sovereignty” for Tribes and the legal rights of Indian people there has been little effort to focus on jobs and economic development.

President Trump’s primary domestic policy goal is job creation which presents an opportunity for Tribes. The Indian treaties, which are the backbone of Tribal law, are not a business plan.

The Tribes need a new beginning and a new federal policy. The Lakota word for new beginning is “Wokini.”

The president of South Dakota State University, Dr. Barry Dunn, has outlined an extraordinary plan to devote the revenue it receives from being a land grant university (some $600,000) to creating educational opportunities for young people from the nine Sioux Reservations is South Dakota. He calls the plan “Wokini.”

The University envisions partnerships with Tribal colleges, Tribes and community members across the state.  It is a bold new vision that President Trump and Agriculture Secretary Perdue can build around as agriculture presents the best opportunity to create a private sector economy in these remote areas.

The upcoming farm bill presents an opportunity to create a program (or pilot) focused on rural farming Tribes. 

Elements of such a program could include:  (Note: some of these items have a cost; most do not.)

•           Create a targeted extension program for Tribes and Native farmers:

•           Work with land grant universities and Tribal colleges on Indian educational initiatives and agriculture education;

•           Modify USDA loan and grant programs to allow Tribes to participate directly, not just individual farmers and ranchers; (Tribes have a communal culture and the most profitable farms are managed by Tribes for the benefit of all enrolled members of the Tribe.)

•           Give Tribes a special focus in USDA’s rural development mission area;

•           Provide irrigation and infrastructure to lower the cost of farming on the Reservation;

•           Bring high speed internet to the Reservations;

•           Give Tribes a priority for rural housing;

•           Assist in establishing and expanding value added agriculture programs; 

•           Have NIFA work with Tribes, Tribal colleges and land grant universities as priority mission;

•           Establish a matching program (perhaps at NIFA) for Land Grant Universities that devote their funds for Native students;

•           Purchase more Native foods for the Tribal commodity program and other food distribution programs including the school lunch program;

•           Extend the Healthy Food Financing Initiative administered by Rural Development to Tribes. 

•           Devote a small percentage of the funds generated by the Western Area Power Authority, WAPA, to an Indian Infrastructure Grant Program administered by the Secretary of Agriculture; (WAPA gets its revenue from the sale of electricity generated, in part, from the dams on the Missouri River. The dams flooded the best Indian land and compensation remains an issue in dispute. WAPA generates approximately $1 billion/year.  On several occasions the Congress has tapped this funding for Indian projects.)  

•           Beyond the farm bill, and USDA, a pilot program providing tax incentives for businesses that create jobs on rural reservations.

President Trump and Secretary Perdue have the opportunity to create a new, bold federal Indian policy as envisioned by President Grant. Given the unique legal status of Tribes and the Treaty obligations of the USA, this initiative would not be a precedent for other subgroups of the population. The reason SDSU has started their program is because the high unemployment on the Reservations in South Dakota impacts the entire state.  

Most of the many social problems on Indian Reservations can be traced directly to the staggering unemployment rates. The President and Secretary Perdue might consider taking South Dakota’s Wokini program and making it a national program or expanding it to a regional pilot.

Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture issues at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.   He serves on the Board of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Farm Corporation and was Chairman of the Obama Agriculture Committee in 2008. Gary Baise specializes in Environmental and Agriculture law at OFW Law.  He was the coordinator the Trump Agriculture and Rural Advisory Committee.