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Native American tribes win big in the new farm bill

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Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Vice Chair Keith Anderson testifies.
Keith Anderson, vice chair of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and co-chair of the Native Farm Bill Coalition, says the new farm bill does a better job acknowledging "the fundamental sovereignty and competence of tribal governments" than previous bills.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images 2017

Native American leaders say a coordinated lobbying effort on the 2018 farm bill has paid off, with unprecedented provisions that will benefit tribal nations across the country.  

That effort, with its ripple effects across the United States, has its roots in Minnesota.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community organized the Native Farm Bill Coalition as part of the tribe's Seeds of Native Health campaign in the fall of 2017. Since then, 170 tribes across the United States have joined the effort. 

"This is really one of the first times where you saw a large number of tribal governments coming together speaking with one strong voice and and being able to get a substantial number of changes," said Colby Duren, executive director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas. 

In the past, tribal leaders were often frustrated in their efforts to ensure tribes were treated the same way states are in farm bill provisions. Food and agriculture are often regulated at the state level, so the federal farm bill frequently defers to state laws. 

Tribal governments were historically not granted the same authority as states, but that has changed in the farm bill's latest iteration. 

"This farm bill acknowledges the fundamental sovereignty and competence of tribal governments far more than previous farm bills," said Keith Anderson, vice chair of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and co-chair of the Native Farm Bill Coalition.

"It gives tribes greater control over our food systems and accords our tribal producers new parity in access to USDA programs."

One area where the change will have a significant effect is government commodity food programs, long a source of mostly unhealthy food on Native American reservations. Tribes can now become part of a pilot project that allows them greater control over which goods should be part of the program.

"What that really allows is [for tribes] to be able to say. 'What are the types of foods — traditional food, healthy food, locally produced foods — that we want to be able to have our citizens have access to in these food programs?' " said Duren. 

"Those are different things that can really help build our tribal food economies, because you're helping to be able to support the producers of the food and able to get healthier foods and locally produced foods to the people who are using those programs."

Duren said the farm bill, which President Trump signed into law last week, includes about 63 provisions for tribal governments, focused on food production, food security and infrastructure. 

"They definitely are going to have a significant impact on food economies throughout Indian Country," Duren said.

Among those provisions, the bill requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish alternative tribal programs for its Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program. It establishes a demonstration project to allow tribes to manage federal forest and Bureau of Land Management lands adjacent to reservations. And it expands tribal access to rural development programs for infrastructure such as  broadband internet and community facilities. 

There will also be more opportunities for tribal colleges to access agriculture research funds, and tribal governments will be allowed to join with states on international trade delegations.  

"There was a really incredible response on the Hill from folks in both the House and the Senate and also from USDA, saying that this was something they were very interested in," Duren said.

The Native Farm Bill Coalition will continue to work with the USDA as it implements the new farm bill.