March 20, 2017

A Perspective from a USDA Tribal Consultation

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The scene: a high-level roundtable dialogue with elected tribal leaders from across the country assembled on one side of the table, and US government officials seated on the other side.  Last month I had the privilege of attending the USDA Tribal Consultation Meeting in Washington DC. 

This meeting – one in a series of official government-to-government consultations taking place over several years – sought to create a meaningful opportunity for information exchange and informed policymaking on food and nutrition programs operating on Indian reservations. During the Obama administration federal agencies were directed to create appropriate consultation processes with tribes, based on long-standing executive orders requiring the federal government to consult with all federally-recognized tribes on policy matters that have tribal implications. However, as we’ve recently seen with the Standing Rock Sioux, tribes are not always respected as sovereign nations and are not properly consulted about issues of importance to them. While the Trump administration is generally viewed as being hostile to tribal sovereignty, tribal leaders in attendance at this meeting were cautiously optimistic that the new administration will reaffirm and continue the USDA’s tribal leaders’ consultations. Three Trump administration advisors were present at the meeting.

This consultation enjoyed high-level representation from a variety of tribes, including the Navajo Nation (NM), Quinault Indian Nation (WA), Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe (ND), Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (SD) and the Pueblos of Zuni and San Ildefonso (NM).  FPDIR directors from these tribes as well as from the Chickasaw Nation (OK), Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (MI), and Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council (NM) also attended.  In addition to the tribal officials who came to share their recommendations and concerns, the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI), which provides strategic advice to the tribal leaders, was also at the table. MAZON works closely with IFAI to advocate on behalf of effective Native food policies at the federal level. As a non-governmental entity, MAZON has no formal role at these federal-tribal consultations, but our presence enables us to effectively lend an outside voice to, and demand accountability for, Native-led policy proposals and priorities. MAZON was the only non-Native organization invited to attend these meetings. 

The key consultation topics focused on two major federal food programs operating in Indian Country: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).  As the only USDA program that only serves Indian Country, FDPIR current provides monthly food packages to over 88,000 eligible households among 276 federally-recognized tribes. One key challenge discussed was the tribes’ desire for more traditional foods produced by Native-owned businesses to be included in the standard package, which consists of fresh fruit, vegetables, proteins, grains and dairy options. USDA currently purchases $12 million worth of traditional foods (bison, wild rice, wild salmon and blue cornmeal) for distribution through FDPIR, but less than half of those expenditures go to Native-owned businesses. Sourcing traditional foods from Native businesses is a powerful way USDA can leverage its purchasing power and drive greater wellness, equity and opportunity for Native communities.

After a day of discussion and give-and-take on a number of issues, I was stuck by the open and genuine communications between USDA and tribal officials, and came away with a profound appreciation for the importance of these government-to-government consultations.  Programs like FDPIR help to fulfill the federal government’s trust responsibility.  That responsibility, which is based on treaties, court cases and federal law, guarantees a unique set of rights and benefits for tribes after their forced removal from their homelands. USDA tribal consultations and other efforts to improve the funding and administration of federal nutrition programs operating in Indian Country stem from a recognition that this country has a solemn obligation to protect the well-being of these communities at a level comparable to non-Natives.  Unfortunately, as we look at the staggering rates of food insecurity, obesity and diabetes in Indian Country, it is clear that we have not yet fulfilled those obligations.

While there is a great deal of work to be done and USDA has a critical role to play, tribal leaders are not looking to the federal government to solve all the problems discussed.  Indeed, tribal leaders emphasized that they must create their own solutions, and that while the federal government can and must support their efforts, there is a vast untapped capacity and potential for tribes to feed themselves and to build vibrant Native food systems. Through our advocacy efforts, MAZON seeks to leverage the strengths and resiliency of Native communities as they pursue food security and food sovereignty.