USDA's Equity Action Plan Commits to Expanding Tribal Self-Determination Policies
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on April 14, 2022, released its Equity Action Plan (Plan), which displays a shift in policy and perspective that is endorsed by the USDA Secretary.
- In its Plan, the USDA pledges to remove what it calls unique barriers for indigenous and tribal access to USDA programs and services. It also promises to do more to promote tribal self-determination to enable greater self-governance and decision-making, and to adapt USDA's programs to include tribal values and indigenous perspectives.
- To hold itself accountable, the USDA plans to hold an "all-of-USDA" tribal consultation annually, and establish a governance and reporting structure on its actions to remove barriers and promote equity for American Indians/Alaska Natives.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on April 14, 2022, released its Equity Action Plan (Plan) to the public. The Plan displays a shift in policy and perspective that is endorsed by the USDA Secretary, which is noteworthy considering that several pages specifically address the USDA's trust and treaty responsibilities toward Indian Country.
In its Plan, the USDA pledges to remove what it calls unique barriers for indigenous and tribal access to USDA programs and services. It also promises to do more to promote tribal self-determination to enable greater self-governance and decision-making, and to adapt USDA's programs to include tribal values and indigenous perspectives.
The Plan acknowledges that the USDA has not consistently implemented its obligations and commitments over the years, and that its pattern of discriminatory practices against Indian Country and failure to honor treaty obligations has led to an erosion of trust with tribal communities and created inequitable program delivery systems.
Summary of USDA Actions
Here is a brief summary of how the USDA says that it will reduce barriers faced by tribal nations, expand tribal self-determination and incorporate indigenous values in all of USDA programs.
Promoting Access to Indigenous Foods. The Plan will require the USDA to support indigenous food sovereignty by incorporating traditional foods in USDA food and nutrition programs, thereby supporting Indian Country food and agricultural markets and improving indigenous health through foods that have positive dietary impacts on American Indians/Alaska Natives (AI/ANs).
Treaty-Based Training. The Plan recognizes that the USDA's flawed and inconsistent policies and practices have undermined tribal sovereignty and hindered tribal economic development. To begin to correct this, USDA will work with the Office of Tribal Relations (OTR) and the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to create a searchable Treaty Database that can be accessed publicly and to develop treaty training programs for USDA staff.
Improving Tribal Contracting. The Plan acknowledges that USDA officials have not understood the proper role of tribal corporations that are wholly owned and controlled by tribal governments. The Plan commits the USDA to reviewing existing tribal contracting preferences, such as the Buy Indian Act and other contracting preferences for tribal businesses and producers, with the intention of increasing and broadening the USDA's use of these contracting opportunities in more programs.
Expanding 638 Tribal Self-Governance. The Plan describes the progress made in the Forest Service and Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) 638 demonstration programs authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill. The Plan calls these programs "important steps to increase tribal food sovereignty and support tribal food economies." And the Plan commits the USDA to promoting tribal opportunities for co-management and co-stewardship of USDA lands and programs as well as tribal administration of federal services and programs.
Ensuring Tribal Lands are Eligible for USDA Programs. USDA inconsistently classifies tribal trust lands. For example, whether they are federal or non-federal and who is the "owner" for purposes of program eligibility. The Plan commits the USDA to ensure that tribal trust lands count and are eligible for USDA programs.
Removing "Legacy" Preferences on Tribal Lands. In the past, the USDA has authorized projects on tribal lands without tribal approval, which has effectively precluded tribal governments from accessing future USDA assistance in that area. The Plan says that the USDA will stop this process and require a tribal resolution of support for any USDA-supported project on tribal lands in recognition of tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction.
Incorporating Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge. A major development is the USDA's commitment to incorporating Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK) into its programs. The USDA plans to identify and tailor appropriate ITEK job descriptions and hire ITEK experts to fill those positions.
Improving the Process for Hiring Tribal Facing Positions. Historically, the USDA has filled tribal-related positions from the pool of staff already working for the USDA. This has discouraged tribal experts from applying. The Plan will require the USDA to implement a new hiring process to bring new staff to the agency.
To hold itself accountable, the USDA plans to hold an "all-of-USDA" tribal consultation annually, and establish a governance and reporting structure on its actions to remove barriers and promote equity for AI/ANs. The last "all-of-USDA" tribal consultation was held April 11-18, 2022.
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