Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

Heather Dawn Thompson on Monday was named director of the Office of Tribal Relations at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and, in a move that underscores the agency’s stated goal of improving nation-to-nation relations, she will report directly to the secretary.

Thompson, Cheyenne River, said she was excited to begin her new assignment.

“I’m absolutely humbled and so honored to be selected,” she said from her home in Rapid City, South Dakota. “My passion is in rural tribal economic development and tribal agriculture, so being given the opportunity to serve Indian Country in this capacity is more than I ever could have imagined.”

Thompson is a Harvard Law School graduate and an expert in American Indian law, tribal sovereignty and rural tribal economic development. Most recently, Thompson served as a member of the American Indian Law Practice Group at Greenberg Traurig, where she worked on federal Indian law and tribal agriculture.

“This administration has been very clear about its top four priorities, which are economic recovery, addressing COVID, racial equity and climate change,” said Thompson, who has served as a law clerk with the Attorney General’s Office for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, as counsel and policy adviser to the U.S. Senate's Democratic Policy Committee, and as an assistant U.S. attorney for South Dakota’s Indian Country Section, where she prosecuted cases involving violence against women and children. “And, frankly, you’re not going to find anywhere else in the nation where those four converge any more than they do in Indian Country.”

Tom Vilsack, who served as agriculture secretary under former President Barack Obama, has been nominated by President Joe Biden to once again lead the department. Vilsack has said he wants to make equity a priority.

In this Jan. 31, 2020 file photo, former secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks at a campaign stop for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at the LOFT on Jefferson, in Burlington, Iowa. President-elect Joe Biden has selected Vilsack to reprise that role in his administration. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

“He wants to make sure underrepresented voices are at the table where policy decisions are made,” said Matt Herrick, USDA director of communications. As part of that commitment, Vilsack ordered that the director of tribal relations would report directly to him, underscoring his commitment to improving relations in Indian Country.

“Heather’s appointment to lead the Office of Tribal Relations is a step toward restoring the office and the position of director so that USDA can effectively maintain nation-to-nation relationships in recognition of tribal sovereignty and to ensure that meaningful tribal consultation is standard practice across the Department,” said Katharine Ferguson, chief of staff at the Office of the Secretary. 

“It’s also important to have a director who can serve as a lead voice on tribal issues, relations and economic development within the Office of the Secretary because the needs and priorities of tribal nations and Indigenous communities are cross cutting and must be kept front and center,” she said.

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Thompson, who will oversee an office with a $1 million annual budget, said the time is right for the federal government to step in and assist Indigenous communities.

“The need in Indian Country is as great now as it ever has been,” she said. “COVID is killing our community members at a rate nearly twice that of the rest of the country. And the people that we are losing are our culture bearers, our fluent speakers. They are our encyclopedias, our Googles. They are completely irreplaceable. And USDA has amazing resources. … I am thrilled to be a part of this when our communities are in so much need.”

Taking a step back, she said she also sees how Indigenous communities can help the nation.

“Right now, in this time of great upheaval in our nation, I can’t imagine a time that’s more important for Indigenous values to be better incorporated throughout the federal government,” she said. “I’m really excited to possibly being a small part in helping that along.”

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Stewart Huntington is a reporter based in Minneapolis. He spent the past five years covering western South Dakota Indian Country for KOTA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Rapid City, S.D.

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