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Seeds of hope planted with USDA

WASHINGTON – Tribal leaders were on hand to help kick off a new organic garden on the lawn of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They hope more than vegetables will grow from the meeting with Obama administration officials.

At the kickoff of the garden, Kathleen Merrigan, the new deputy secretary of the department, was largely interested in talking about the sustainability of the effort and its handicap-accessible planters. Tribal leaders were respectful, but also had questions about USDA policies and their effect on tribes.

One lingering question was how the USDA, under President Barack Obama, will react to a topic of interest in Indian country known as the Snowbowl litigation.

The case involves environmental and human rights issues stemming from the proposed expansion of a ski resort development on the San Francisco Peaks, a mountain in northern Arizona that is considered sacred to several tribes. Resort operators want to use reclaimed sewage to create artificial snow to expand the resort.

The area is under the domain of the USDA Forest Service. Under the Bush administration, agency officials rebutted tribal claims that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would be upended by the development.

Native advocates believe the proposal will further desecrate the sacred site, increase threats to endangered species and cause environmental destruction.

In summer 2008, a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of tribal interests, but the decision was reversed by the full court. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in January.

When asked her opinion of the case during the Earth Day garden event, Merrigan said she was “aware of the situation,” but that she was too new on the job to offer further comment. A press officer interjected and said she would be happy to provide more information at a later time.

Earlier, Merrigan said she was “absolutely” interested in working with Native Americans on a variety of issues that affect them. “This is a department with diverse interests.”

Beyond Snowbowl, Heather Dawn Thompson, director of governmental affairs with the National Congress of American Indians, said that tribes would like to see the agency fund a $5 million traditional foods program that would provide better nutrition options to tribes.

The funds have been authorized, but not appropriated.

“The USDA has not asked for the funding, as far as we can tell yet,” Thompson said, adding that the investment could help curb Native diabetes rates and thus reduce the need for health care treatment spending in future years.

“We’re hoping, since it’s only $5 million, that they can be creative and flexible.”

The USDA’s commodities program to reservations has often been criticized for offering many poor nutrition items. Tribes have expressed interest in working with the agency on making sure that traditional foods from Native communities are labeled as such.

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Joseph Brings Plenty, who was on hand at the garden event and offered a traditional song, said it was important that the USDA pays attention to the culture and traditions of Native Americans.

The chairman helped Merrigan and D.C. school children plant some seeds in the garden via the “Three Sisters” method. It is a traditional farming technique known as companion planting, in which squash, maize and beans are planted in unison.

On policy matters, Brings Plenty said that stimulus funds have already come to the tribe as a result of the Obama administration’s Recovery Act funding. He said his tribe is coping with a recent flood and has several infrastructure needs.

Thompson said the garden event and the invitation to tribal leaders to participate could be viewed as evidence that the USDA, under Obama, wants to have a positive relationship with tribes.

“The important thing is that people [with the USDA] make the link between historical traditions and today’s implementation of policies.”

The USDA’s Office of Native American Programs is online.