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Carina Dominguez
Indian Country Today

The new U.S. Department of Agriculture equity commission will include a citizen from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

The commission is tasked with analyzing how the department's programs, policies and practices have impacted marginalized farmers.

The 15-member external commission, and 15-member subcommittee on agriculture, will include racial and gender diversity and will investigate barriers to access and inclusion at the department. The commissions will provide recommendations to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

One commission member, from the Colville Confederated Tribes, will represent Indigenous farmers, who are among those concerned about systemic discrimination within the department.

“We have had a history of discriminatory practices and it's reflected in a variety of things that we've already done at the department, settling of thousands of claims,” Vilsack said.

He referenced the many national class action lawsuits against the department, including one of the most notable cases – referred to simply as ‘Keepseagle’ – and said the lawsuits were “reflective of the past.”

“We want to turn the page. We want to continue to work to become a department that values diversity, inclusion and access and equity,” Vilsack said.

Keepseagle v. Vilsack

The federal class action lawsuit against the USDA went on for 18 years until it finally came to a settlement agreement in 2010, during the Obama administration.

Hunkpapa Lakota rancher Marilynn Keepseagle, from Standing Rock, was a lead plaintiff in the case.

The lawsuit was based on discrimination against Native ranchers and farmers in the USDA farm and ranch loan program.

The settlement resulted in $680 million in compensation, along with additional funds for debt relief.

The court also approved the establishment of a charitable trust fund called the Native American Agriculture Fund.

Wastewater manager Nelson Edmonds speaks with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about his dilapidated facility on Wednesday, July 7, 2021, in Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico. Vilsack announced that the Pueblo will receive a $610,000 loan and a $1.6 million grant in state money to expand the wastewater treatment plant where Edmonds works. Edmonds says some of the equipment at the plant in rusting through. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Its CEO Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, Colville Confederated Tribes, was selected in February as a member of the new equity commission.

“I'm very humbled to serve in this capacity,” Stanger-McLaughlin said.

She says the Native American Agriculture Fund was “birthed from the Keepseagle v. Vilsack litigation” after Native farmers and ranchers sued the USDA for violations of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

Tribal citizen on equity commission

Prior to being named CEO, Stanger-McLaughlin was the fund programs director.

She started her career at the USDA in the Office of Civil Rights, where she worked on class action lawsuits and was directly involved in the settlement of civil rights and access to credit claims in the Keepseagle litigation.

Stanger-McLaughlin then went on to work in the department’s Office of Tribal Relations where she worked across the USDA’s agencies to advance tribal needs.

That included leading a comprehensive analysis of policies related to sacred sites for the Forest Service and she believes that work will be similar to what she’ll be doing for the new equity commission.

“Part of this work is going to be going through and looking at what's working, what's not working. I did similar work during the Obama administration. The secretary of Agriculture asked the Office of Tribal Relations to step in and do a significant report on sacred sites,” Stanger-McLaughlin said.

She says the first Obama administration was progressive and helped reorganize the Office of Civil Rights within the USDA.

“A lot of this work within the department of agriculture is a second coming,” Stanger-McLaughlin said about the new equity commission.

The commission will expand on the small-scale changes that started under Obama and she’s hopeful there will be more success this time around.

“It's going to take a culmination of these experts that are coming together to serve on the commission but also the leadership within the department,” Stanger-McLaughlin said.

She says there’s a lot more work to be done because racism is deeply ingrained in the history of the United States. She points to the makeup of “who could own property” historically.

“We're playing catch and we have not been on an equal playing field, hopefully through some of this work we will be able to equalize some of the former issues that minority farmers have experienced,” Stanger-McLaughlin said. “There's been a lot of forgiveness provided to producers in the United States throughout the years.”

She understands the relationships tribal communities have with land and promises to bring that unique sense of responsibility to her work.

“Traditional cultivation is part of each one of our creation stories. I've yet to find a tribe – and I've worked all across the country, all across Indian country – that doesn't have some type of attachment to land or to animals and beings in our whole ecosystems,” Stanger-Mclaughlin said.

The commission will identify barriers to inclusion that perpetuate racial, economic and health inequities and provide recommendations for action.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to make changes from the inside out,” Stanger-McLaughlin said.

Addressing systemic racism

The equity commission announcement marks a step toward delivering on President Biden’s commitment to address historical discrimination at the USDA.

“We need help and assistance in looking at the ways in which we currently do business and decide whether there are barriers that we need to remove,” Vilsack said.

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Last January the administration issued an executive order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities.

“Are there ways we can expand access to historically underserved populations? Can we look for ways to become that organization with that culture that values and prioritizes diversity, equity and inclusion and making sure that we have access to our programs?,” Vilsack asked.

He says the commission is designed to comply with the congressional directive, satisfy the president's executive order and to “do right” to communities across the country.

Stanger-McLaughlin says Arizona is one example of where “doing right” needs to occur.

“One thing that's unique in Arizona is that a majority of the producers in the whole state are identified as Native American, are operating on Native American land, and yet when we look at the department of agriculture and the funding, the services that go to that state, they largely don't go towards tribal communities,” Stanger-McLaughlin said.

The equity commission was authorized and funded by the American Rescue Plan Act in Section 1006.

The section outlined the USDA must provide assistance and support to socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, forest landowners, operators and groups.

“We're counting on the equity commission to do a thorough and comprehensive look at our activities at USDA in terms of our customer facing entities, our Farm Service Agency, our Rural Development agencies, for example, to make sure that we're doing what we need to do,” Vilsack said.

The USDA has made other attempts at bringing more parity in the past.

Intertribal Agriculture Council Member Zach Ducheneaux chats with Navajo Nation high school students while in the Whitten Building Patio before Vice President Mike Pence commemorates National Agriculture Day and delivers remarks regarding President Donald J. Trump's National Ag Day Proclamation at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) headquarters in Washington, D.C., on March 20, 2018. Vice President Pence's address includes the importance of agriculture and honoring America's farmers, ranchers, and foresters, with a special recognition of youth. (Photo by Lance Cheung, U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Last year, Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux, Cheyenne River Sioux, talked to Indian Country Today about a debt relief program for socially disadvantaged producers.

The American Rescue Plan included funds for the USDA to make debt relief payments on behalf of racially diverse farmers.

At the time Ducheneaux said the program was a “once in a multigenerational opportunity to improve” economic standing for socially disadvantaged farmers.

“There’s been a multi-generational systemic inequity that has resulted in a lot of different economic realities for a lot of these socially disadvantaged producers and the American Rescue Plan loan payments to socially disadvantaged producers is the first step in rebuilding the trust that has eroded away,” Ducheneaux said last July, when the program first started accepting applications.

However, the $4 billion in aid has not been dispersed. About 13 federal lawsuits have been filed against the USDA by White farmers claiming the program hurts them and tying up the funds in court.

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Vilsack explains the department was prepared to provide debt relief but “individuals who have the right in this country to proceed to litigation, they filed lawsuits.”

He said the department unsuccessfully resisted the temporary injunctions that were issued and the courts made the decision to stop the USDA’s efforts, to allow the litigants to have their position fully adjudicated.

“We're pushing back, we're filing motions in all of these cases to try to get to a point where we're able to actually provide debt relief,” Vilsack said. “We are fighting hard.”

He said the USDA is proceeding as quickly as possible to get a resolution, adding the department is “prepared” to issue debt relief payments “as soon as the courts allow us to.”

Vilsack promised to continue to “advocate forcefully” in those cases

“At the same time we're gonna continue to look for ways in which we can provide help and assistance,” Vilsack said.

More changes to come

According to Stanger-McLaughlin, in order to make sustainable, long-term improvements in equity and inclusion within the department it will take congressional action.

“But this commission can help highlight those issues to provide those decision makers and those lawmakers with the knowledge in order to help make these, not only internal, improvements but also legislative fixes,” she said.

She pointed out how many Native people are currently serving in the department:

General Counsel of the USDA Janie Hipp, Chickasaw, Ducheneaux heads the Farm Service Agency and Heather Dawn Thompson, Cheyenne River Sioux, is the director of the Office of Tribal Relations.

“This is the most Native American representation we've had within the department and we look forward to more changes and understanding of how to work with tribal communities,” Stanger-McLaughlin said.

Despite the odds, she says, Native American producers have been successful.

The newly established equity commission will hold its first public meeting on Monday, Feb. 28.

The USDA has future plans of launching an additional subcommittee focused on rural community and economic development.

Vilsack says “there's a lot of activity and work going on” to become an organization that values culture and prioritizes diversity, equity, inclusion, and access.

“It makes us a better department,” he said.

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