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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spent an hour at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) general assembly on Wednesday, announcing significant new funding and engaging directly with tribal leaders to hear their concerns.

During his remarks, Vilsack outlined $62 million in funding for forestry and food sovereignty in Indian Country. USDA will award $42 million to eight projects under the Indigenous Animals Harvesting and Meat Processing Grant Program. An additional 23 projects will receive $18 million under the agency’s Tribal Forest Protection Act’s self-determination program, Finally, five Native-led organizations will receive a total of $2.3 million to support providing Indigenous foods in school meal programs. 

One highlighted project includes the Eastern Band of Cherokee receiving $6.5 million for a meat processing center, which will help process cattle, hog, sheep, deer, and more. The facility will allow the Eastern Band to establish a meat and fish brand as an economic driver and a way to feed the community. 

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The Lac Vieux Desert Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa will receive support to collaborate with the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Their partnership will address lake water quality, habitat, access, food sovereignty, and cultural preservation. In particular, the groups hope to improve wild rice quality by replacing road-stream intersections along the Wisconsin River.

Minnesota-based nonprofit North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS) will receive support for facilitating access to traditional foods. The nonprofit plans to work with 11 tribes as well as multiple school districts within Minnesota and neighboring states. 

During the general session, Vilsack emphasized the USDA’s commitment to forestry and food sovereignty for tribal nations.   

“I come here today in an effort to try to make sure that you understand that this is a priority,” Vilsack told the audience. “We certainly have appreciated the enormous work that has been done and recognize that there is still a great deal of work to do.” 

After announcing the awards, Vilsack answered an array of questions from NCAI’s Executive Committee. Questions ranged from concerns regarding USDA consultation practices to direct asks, such as expanding the Buy Indian Act.  

Reggie Tupponce, tribal administrator for the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, raised a question about the USDA’s preparedness to interact with treaty rights. Tupponce said the agency was often uninformed about treaty rights. He noted that the USDA is the second-largest holder of federal lands to which treaty rights apply. 

“Time and again, when we meet with USDA, your lawyers know virtually nothing about treaty rights,” Tupponce said. “How many treaty knowledgeable attorneys do you have on staff at USDA? How can you remedy this lack of knowledge and expertise?”

Vilsack responded that the quick answer was “not enough.” He pointed to a comparatively low number of lawyers on staff — 225 versus the Interior Department’s 500-plus — and a need for Congressional support to improve that. 

Vilsack raised a similar issue with expanding the Buy Indian Act, a long-held priority for Native agriculture advocates. The USDA doesn’t have the authority to implement Buy Indian provisions without Congressional approval, Vilsack said. The department is currently in discussions with Congress on what language should go into such a bill, he added.

In addition, recent movement in US courts indicated that minority-focused programs could face discrimination lawsuits, Vilsack said. Prior Tribal Business News reporting has pointed to injunctions against minority-focused debt relief attempted by USDA post-COVID, for example. 

“There is a concerted effort now in the courts to restrict the capacity of USDA and all federal departments to be able to provide the kind of focused efforts in Indian Country, or for that matter focused efforts in things involving diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility,” Vilsack said. 

The pushback against DEI and set-asides will likely have an impact on the funding and legislation, according to Vilsack. “It’s not going to be as simple as it was in the past to get a Farm Bill passed with those (kinds of)  provisions.”

After addressing the audience’s questions and concerns, Vilsack continued to elaborate on the USDA’s forestry and food sovereignty initiatives during a one-on-one conversation with Tribal Business News.  

Vilsack said the funding for meat-processing facilities would facilitate providing traditional Indigenous food products, such as bison, to the school lunch program announced today.

He also told Tribal Business News it is long overdue for the U.S. Forest Service to work with tribes as co-managers of forests.

“We have come to realize that tribes, particularly those near forests, understand how to manage forests because of their Indigenous knowledge. They have a stake in seeing that the forests are maintained for future generations,” Vilsack said.

Tribal Business News and Native News Online Editor Levi Rickert spoke with Secretary Vilsack after his remarks and provided additional reporting at the NCAI General Assembly.

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About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Author: Chez OxendineEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Chesley Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is an Oklahoma-based staff reporter for Tribal Business News, covering agriculture, clean energy, real estate and technology in Indian Country.