New USDA Tribal Liaison to Propel Biden Agenda of Racial Equity

  • Thompson to confront Covid, economy, climate, racial equity
  • Office of Tribal Relations head reports to agriculture chief

President Joe Biden‘s choice of a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member to head the Agriculture Department’s Office of Tribal Relations underscores a strengthening movement across government to elevate the interests of the nation’s Indigenous communities.

Director Heather Dawn Thompson will report to the agriculture secretary — a change intended to emphasize her office’s role as a government-to-government liaison made “in recognition of tribal sovereignty and to ensure that meaningful tribal consultation is standard practice across the Department,” chief of staff Katharine Ferguson said in a Jan. 25 announcement. The move will reverse a 2018 Trump administration policy that shifted oversight of OTR to USDA’s Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement.

Thompson said she plans to focus on the agency’s Covid response, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change, aligning with Biden administration priorities.

“There’s no place in the U.S. where those four goals converge more than in Indian Country,” Thompson said in a Feb. 10 telephone interview.

The rise of Native American leaders in Washington is part of increased advocacy and representation for those communities and matters important to them.

Sharon Chischilly/Getty Images
Marlene Thomas hands out donated homemade masks while families wait to receive food, water, and other supplies on May 27, 2020, in Counselor on the Navajo Nation Reservation, N.M., as Covid cases rose.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) is pressing toward her possible Senate confirmation as the country’s first Native American interior secretary, although she faces GOP pushback.

Drilling Fight Near Tribal Site Shows Challenge Awaiting Haaland

Congress welcomed a historic number of Indigenous members — six — after last year’s election, and Senate Indian Affairs Chair Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) on Feb. 9 proposed “the biggest one-time investment in native communities in American history” of as much as $28 billion to help confront the coronavirus pandemic.

Native American interests have even been advanced by an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, thanks to Justice Neil Gorsuch, who cast the deciding vote last year in a decision recognizing modern tribal sovereignty over much of eastern Oklahoma.

‘Empowering Tribal Nations’

Thompson pointed out that the federal government has previously faced difficulties in “empowering tribal nations from an economic development standpoint.” Tribes employ different legal structures and approaches to land ownership, while maintaining a constitutional relationship to the U.S. that deviates from that of state governments, she said.

Another barrier for Native American agriculture producers is access to credit, said Zach Ducheneaux, executive directive of the Intertribal Agriculture Council.

“Many ag credit systems were never designed with tribal producers in mind nor the realities of production and conservation on trust lands,” he said in a Feb. 10 statement.

Thompson spent two decades as an attorney in Indian Country, focused on rural economic development for tribal nations. She most recently worked for the law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, with its American Indian Law Practice.

The team at Arizona State University’s American Indian Policy Institute described Thompson as a “welcome addition” to USDA, and hopes to work with her on rural broadband programs, the think tank said in an emailed statement. Arizona is home to 22 tribes, the state’s Economic Security Department reports.

Thompson has also taken on several public service roles, including counsel and policy adviser for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee and assistant U.S. attorney for South Dakota’s Indian Country section.

Farming and ranching run in Thompson’s bloodlines, she said, adding that her tribe engages in both Western and traditional agricultural practices.

Janie Hipp, a former OTR director and current Native American Agriculture Fund CEO, called Thompson “an excellent choice” for the position, given the “many needs that Indian Country has of USDA.”

Racism, Remembering Roots

Thompson joined the White House, Agriculture Department, and Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack in supporting a bill that would provide $5 billion to farmers of color struggling during the pandemic and historically subjected to discrimination by the federal government.

It would allot $4 billion in direct payments to Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and other farmers of color to pay outstanding Agriculture Department farm loan debts and alleviate Covid-related economic damage. It would also create a $1 billion fund to back grants and loans for land access and heirs’ property issues, and support other racial equity initiatives.

Several similar proposals were included in the House Agriculture Committee’s contribution to the stimulus bill under development in the House.

Thompson plans to confront racism within her office by reinterpreting rules around eligibility and application for agency programs, making them more flexible, she said.

“It is difficult to be a citizen of a Native Nation appointed to a position within the federal government,” said Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive and attorney for the Association on American Indian Affairs, in an emailed statement. She said her hopes are for Thompson to “never forget that her priorities are her Native Nation and Indian Country as a whole.”

Thompson responded that she welcomes “my elders continuing to remind me” of her heritage.

“It is my role and responsibility, as it is with all Indigenous people, to remember seven generations back and seven generations going forward,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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