Skip to main content

Department of Agriculture boosts support in Indian country

WASHINGTON - Although the Department of Agriculture has recently become involved in litigation over civil rights violation claims brought by a group of Indian farmers, the secretary says it has been working hard over the past five years to expand and improve its services in Indian country.

While the department can be proud of some these changes, he says it has come to realize how much more work remains to be done in Indian country.

"Native American communities are the most in need and the administration has made it a priority that Native Americans receive their fair share," said Dan Glickman, secretary of Agriculture. "Over the past thirty years the federal government has cut this problem in half, but in Indian country we still have a long way to go.

More than 80 percent of the 55 million acres of Indian lands in the United States consist of crop and range land. While Indian agriculture is comprised mostly of farming and ranching it also includes forestry, buffalo, wild rice, tobacco and other native products. Most tribes rely on some form of Indian agriculture for subsistence or economic development.

The department reports the agricultural industry is the second largest revenue generator and employer in Indian country.

The department serves Indian people and tribal governments through a number of programs. The most widely used include the grant and loan programs under the Farm Service Agency and the Rural Development office. These programs offer money to buy and operate farms and ranches, as well as fund water and waste disposal projects.

Under its farm loans programs, Indian farmers only account for .5 percent of the nation's farms, but they represent 1.5 percent of the USDA's more than 100,000 borrowers, numbers which reflect a disproportionate need on Indian farms.

Since 1998, more than $3 million in loans has been made to dozens of tribal members within the seven tribes of Montana alone, helping them purchase farms and ranches and establish operating capital.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

However; it is this program which came under fire in litigation over charges of discrimination brought by Indian farmers who applied for loans.

"The department has not had the best track record with regard to civil rights," Glickman said. "We have just recently settled a lawsuit filed by black farmers, but since I have taken over I have made the upgrade of our civil rights responsibilities a priority. We have improved outreach and technical assistance and I'm looking forward to better serving all small farmers in need."

In July, it was announced that the USDA will provide over $226 million to improve drinking water and wastewater service in America's rural areas. Indian country will receive $35 million.

The funds, a combination of grants and loans, includes seven tribal projects and one project which would benefit 16 Alaska Native villages.

Since 1993, funding for grants and loans under the Rural Development office for waste and water projects has increased from $2 million to $44 million annually, improving basic water and sewage services for thousands of Indian families.

"Our tribe has been direct beneficiaries from this agency," said Malcom Bowekaty, governor of the Pueblo of Zuni. "We have secured over $7.7 million for a water supply and distribution project that gives our tribe a chance at economic development. Our previous water supply was depleted, full of iron permanganate that blackened drinking water and our residents, schools, hospitals and community centers experience water shortages monthly."

Under its Water 2000 program, USDA acts as a lender of last resort, targeting investment in communities that need it most. Projects also leverage funds from local water districts, county governments, state agencies, and other federal sources. The assistance package announced in July brings the total amount invested in Indian country through Water 2000 to more than $160 million.

"These projects are very expensive and require millions of dollars," Secretary Glickman said. "Investing in the safety and quality of a community's drinking water improves public health, enhances fire protection, expands economic opportunity and conserves precious natural resources. There is just not the tax base or resource base for most tribes to handle such projects on their own. It is appropriate that federal government step in and provide the help that is so desperately needed out there."

Tribes on this year's project list include: the Lac du Flambeau Tribe of Chippewa in Wisconsin, the Uintah and Ouray Ute Tribe in Utah, the St. Regis Mohawk in New York, the Pueblo of Picuris in New Mexico, the Karuk and Bridgeport Paiute of California and various Native villages in Alaska.