Dianna Hunt
Indian Country Today

Janie Hipp – the granddaughter of a farmer and national advocate for farmers and ranchers – has been nominated by President Joe Biden to be general counsel of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an agency she once advised on tribal relations.

Hipp, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and chief executive of the Native American Agriculture Fund, would serve under Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was first appointed to the position by President Barack Obama in 2009 and reappointed by Biden earlier this year.

Hipp created the Office of Tribal Relations under Vilsack and served as his senior advisor during the Obama administration.

Her nomination Monday came on the day that Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, won historic confirmation in the U.S. Senate to be the first Indigenous person to be Secretary of the Interior.

If she is also confirmed by the Senate, Hipp would join Haaland and more than a half-dozen other Indigenous people appointed to high-level positions by the Biden administration.

“This is an important opportunity, and we acknowledge the gravity of this moment,” the Native American Agriculture Fund said in a statement released Monday. “This will be beneficial for all of agriculture.”

Hipp, who now lives in Arkansas, could not be reached for comment Monday. But in a newscast with Indian Country Today earlier this month she talked about growing up in rural Idabel, Oklahoma, with both sides of her family involved in farming.

“If something came through your land and you had a bad hailstorm, the people in your community would rally around you and stay with you,” she said. “Why? Because they knew that you were growing the food that was going to help feed them.”

As the USDA’s general counsel, Hipp would lead the office that provides legal services for all programs and activities of the department. Among the actions facing the USDA are lawsuits filed over the U.S. Forest Service’s attempt to transfer Oak Flat land considered sacred by the San Carlos Apache Tribe and other Indigenous people for a massive copper mine.

The Biden administration has temporarily halted the planned transfer of the Oak Flat land. Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona filed a bill Monday to overturn a provision approved by Congress for the land transfer.

The nomination drew praise from Indigenous leaders.

"Janie has an incredible depth of knowledge of USDA law and policy that only comes from working on the ground and sitting at the kitchen table with farmers and ranchers from all walks of life across the entire country and around the world," Kari Jo Lawrence, executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council, said in an email to Indian Country Today.

"We know that she will bring her unparalleled brilliance, passion, heart, and determination back to USDA in this new role because we’ve seen her at work to raise the voices of all of Rural America," she said.

Hipp obtained a law degree from Oklahoma City University in 1984 and worked as a litigator before obtaining an advanced law degree in food and agriculture law from the University of Arkansas in 1996. She served four years with the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, in part helping to slow farm foreclosures, according to the University of Arkansas website.

At the USDA, in addition to advising Vilsack, she served as director of the department’s Risk Management Education Division and spent two terms on the USDA Secretary’s Advisory Committee for Beginning Farmers and Ranchers.

She left the federal government in early 2014 to head the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas, where she also worked as a visiting law professor.

She currently is chief executive of the Native American Agriculture Fund, which provides grants to organizations for agricultural education, technical support and advocacy for Native farmers and records. The fund awarded $15 million in grants to 112 organizations last year, according to the website.

Among Biden’s other Indigenous appointees are:

  • Heather Dawn Thompson, Cheyenne River Sioux, director of the Office of Tribal Relations, U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Zach Ducheneaux, Cheyenne River Sioux, the first Indigenous person to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency
  • Libby Washburn, Chickasaw, special assistant to the president for Native American affairs, White House Domestic Policy Council
  • Bryan Newland, Bay Mills Indian Community, principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior
  • Paawee Rivera, Pojoaque Pueblo, senior adviser for intergovernmental affairs and White House Director of Tribal Affairs
  • Wahleah Johns, Diné, director of the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, Department of Energy
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