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Joaqlin Estus and Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

The new director of the office of tribal affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture started off her job with a meeting with representatives of Native financial institutions.

Heather Dawn Thompson told more than a dozen members of the Native Community Development Financial Institutions Network at a Jan. 29 Zoom meeting, “I think I'm on day four of my job. So it just goes to show you how very important we think you guys are, how excited we are to partner with you.”

Thompson, Cheyenne River Sioux, told the group she is passionate about rural tribal economic development, tribal agriculture, and self determination.

“My focus has always been on diversifying tribal economies,” Thompson said. “What else can we bring to our rural economies? How can we empower our rural tribal economies that are never going to have the population base to bring in that income that a lot of the more urban located tribes are able to do?”

(Related: Lakota lawyer to lead Agriculture tribal relations)

Thompson said another priority is getting the Department of Agriculture behind the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act which authorizes tribes to run federal programs that provide services to tribal citizens.

Native CDFI Network flyer re: mtg with USDA tribal affairs office director Heather Dawn Thompson. Jan. 29, 2021. Screenshot

“Just so you know what I’m super passionate about, one of our first goals for us is to get 638 implemented at USDA so tribes can take control of their own destiny in the various programs—that's food, nutrition service, and at the U.S. Forest Service,” Thompson said.

The Department of Agriculture’s rural development program loan portfolio in 2020 was $234.4 billion. Its loans and grants programs invested more than $6.2 billion in Indian Country from 2001 to 2018.

“We need to find a way for tribes to break into USDA financing,” Thompson said.

She wants to remove systemic impediments at the department. As an example she mentioned the cycle of legacy preferences for non-Native companies for broadband and electricity, which she said does not always benefit tribes.

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Thompson asked the group for recommendations, saying if people outlined the problem, the solution and what type of policy – legislative, practice or regulatory — needs changing, her team can tackle the topic efficiently.

“Right now, low hanging fruit, bad practices, we can start to address right away,” she said.

Some of the issues or recommendations raised by the CDFIs include:

  • The high (51 percent) ownership requirement set by the Highly Fractionated Indian Land Loan Program
  • Expansion and permanence of South Dakota’s Section 502 relending pilot program
  • Money set aside for reservations in the business and industry guarantee program
  • Onerous reporting requirements for small loans
  • Increased training for agency staff about CDFIs

Thompson said the department will try to have more conversations and will be “much more communicative than the office has been in the past.”

Native CDFI Executive Director Jackson Brossy, Navajo.

Native CDFI Network Executive Director Jackson Brossy, Navajo, wrapped up the meeting with an update on a bill before Congress that would allocate $3 billion to the CDFI fund. Of that, he said, at least $25 million would go to Native CDFIs if the bill becomes law.

The Department of Agriculture runs programs in nutrition, food production, natural resource conservation, insurance, and rural development. Also in its portfolio are housing, electricity, broadband and clean water programs.

The Native CDFI Network serves Native communities across 27 states, including American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. It provides access to credit and capital for small business enterprise, community service and facilities, commercial real estate and affordable housing in Indian Country.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.

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