Joseph Miller selects a bottle of fruit juice available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDIPR) at the Acoma Food Distribution Program Warehouse in the Pueblo of Acoma, NM.  USDA phot
Joseph Miller selects a bottle of fruit juice available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDIPR) at the Acoma Food Distribution Program Warehouse in the Pueblo of Acoma, NM. USDA phot

WASHINGTON - Native American agricultural activists expressed relief that the House Friday failed to pass an $868 billion spending bill that funds agriculture and nutrition assistance programs.

"Today’s vote in the U.S. House provides an opportunity for even more Indian tribes to join the coalition in our efforts to raise public awareness of the risks and opportunities for Indian Country in the Farm Bill," said Zach Ducheneaux, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota who serves board of directors of the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC).

Earlier this month, Ducheneaux and other representatives of the Native Farm Bill Coalition (NFBC) held three days of talks with lawmakers and officials at the White House and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Their message: We want a farm bill that includes our voices and better reflects the unique needs of Indian Country.

The first U.S. food stamps came off the presses Ap
The first U.S. food stamps came off the presses April 20, 1939.

The farm bill, first passed in the 1930s, covers an array of agricultural and food programs administered by the Department of Agriculture, from farming to nutrition to credit and debt structuring.  Congress reauthorizes the bill every five years, but negotiations can delay final passage for months, even years.

Native American farmers want Congress to give tribes more parity.

“Wherever you see the reference to state and local governments in the bill, we want to see ‘tribal governments’ included as well,” said Mariah Gladstone, a member of Montana’s Blackfeet tribe who lobbies for tribal food sovereignty -- roughly defined as the ability to feed themselves.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) e
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) electronic benefits transfer cards from several U.S. states. The draft 2018 Farm Bill would require recipients to work for benefits or be enrolled in job training. Courtesy: USDA

Native Americans are particularly concerned about changes governing federal nutrition programs. About a quarter of Native Americans receive food assistance, and in some communities, as many as 80 percent. They may choose between the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).

SNAP offers monthly benefits through electronic debit cards, which are used to purchase groceries from authorized stores.

FDPIR is currently administered by the USDA through state agencies or Indian tribal organizations. They place orders on behalf of tribes from a list of about 100 available foods, which FDPIR purchases and ships.

The 2018 farm bill has added a controversial work requirement: To receive SNAP benefits, adults would be required either to work or participate in job training for at least 20 hours a week.

“That is a huge concern,” said Gladstone. “The issue isn’t a lack of training or education.  Many times, it’s just the fact that there are no jobs available.”  

The First Nations Development Institute reports that about half of American Indian-Alaska Native (AI-AN) people live in sparsely populated, rural areas, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away from jobs.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the AI-AN unemployment rate in 2016 stood at 8.9 percent, compared to an overall U.S. rate of 4.9 percent.

FILE - Corn fields grow in Springfield, Neb., Sept
FILE - Corn fields grow in Springfield, Neb., Sept. 10, 2014.

“This would basically force people to move far away from their families just to get food,” Gladstone said. “It’s essentially another relocation policy.”

She refers to the 1956 Relocation Act, which incentivized tribe members to leave the reservation for jobs in large cities, a policy Native Americans viewed as an extension of 19th Century forced assimilation policies.

Infrastructure development 

The government offers incentives for farmers to grow commodity crops like corn and livestock instead of specialty products like fruits and vegetables. Native American farmers today produce about $3.4 billion in commodity crops.

FILE - Central Illinois farmers deposit harvested
FILE - Central Illinois farmers deposit harvested corn on the ground outside a full grain elevator in Virginia, Ill., Sept. 23, 2015.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine-percent of their products are sold off the reservation at nearly exploitative prices,” said “None of the value-added agriculture is happening in our reservation communities.” 

Examples of value-added agriculture would include slaughtering and processing livestock or converting corn into ethanol or popcorn.

Packages of popcorn are shown in this Feb. 28, 201
Packages of popcorn are shown in this Feb. 28, 2013, photo at Lakota Foods on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

“If we could turn our commodities into food, our $3.4 billion industry could grow into a $20 billion industry,” he said. “And we could start erasing those black spots on the poverty map.”

Ducheneaux believes this would also benefit states and the federal government.

“The federal government’s estimation of its obligation to Indian Country in the form of annual appropriation is about $8 billion – a couple billion for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and in the best of years, $5 billion maybe to Indian Health Care.”

But expanding agriculture takes capital, and Native Americans are all-too-often turned down for loans, technical assistance and other services.  

This is due in part to confusion over the status of Native lands held in trust by the U.S. government.

A Native American Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe youth
A Native American Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe youth tends to a rice crop on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota on Aug. 27, 2012.

“For too long, banks have been allowed to hide behind the myth that you cannot mortgage trust land or that you cannot perfect security interests within Indian reservations,” he said. “I go all over the country challenging them to show me one time when they couldn’t collect their debt. And I have yet to have someone give me an instance.”

The USDA operates loan programs, but tribal farmers cannot always meet the financial requirements of the programs.  

The current farm bill expires at the end of September. 

Senate lawmakers have introduced two marker bills outlining policies they would like to see incorporated into the final bill.

In statement, Friday, White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said Trump "is disappointed in the result of today's vote, and hopes the House can resolve any remaining issues in order to achieve strong work requirements and support our nation's agricultural community."

But Ducheneaux sees today's development as an opportunity.

"As the national discussion on the Farm Bill starts up again, the member tribes of the coalition will continue to advocate on behalf of Indian Country for tribal control, food sovereignty, and parity access to USDA resources and vital nutrition assistance programs.”