Ag Secretary Says Co-Stewardship Must Be More Than Words

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, speaking at the NCAI’s Mid-year Convention, said co-stewardship agreements will be a “false promise” unless tribes are given the resources they need to help manage ancestral lands that are now national forests.

By Melanie Lenart

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks with Mark Macarro, president of the National Congress of American Indians, during the June 5 event.

Addressing the National Congress of American Indians last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack highlighted newly funded projects for tribal nations in three areas: food sovereignty, meat processing, and forest management and stewardship. However, he cautioned federal agencies are getting legal “pushback” on efforts to go beyond stewardship to return ancestral land to tribal nations.

During his talk at the NCAI Mid-Year Convention and Marketplace in Cherokee, North Carolina, Vilsack indicated he was proud the US Department of Agriculture had secured 180 agreements with tribal nations to co-steward some of their ancestral lands that are now national forests. But he credited prodding from Office of Tribal Relations Director Dawn Thompson to remind him that the agency couldn’t stop there.

“The challenge is, it’s one thing to have co-stewardship agreements, it’s another thing to have the resources to make it happen,” Vilsack told the members of the congress. Without resources, such agreements could end up being a “false promise,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I came here today, to indicate to you that we’re not just expanding opportunities but we’re putting resources behind those opportunities.”

Coinciding with his talk on June 5, the agency announced $18 million in funding for 23 projects involving co-stewardship agreements.

Many of these relate to managing the forests better by using mechanical treatments along with prescribed fire and cultural burning, such as in the co-stewardship agreements with the Klamath Tribes for Fremont Winema National Forest in Oregon and with the Bay Mills Indian Community for Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan. Other projects address water quality and food sovereignty, such as the co-stewardship agreement with the Vieux Desert Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa regarding Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin.

During a question-and-answer session, Reggie Wassana, governor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, said the USDA often proves to be a barrier in efforts to implement Section 6 of Secretary’s Order 3403, which has clauses promoting the restoration of tribal homelands to tribal ownership. Vilsack and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued the 2021 order.

“Land back is a major priority in Indian Country,” Wassana added. “What can you do to remove this barrier?”

Vilsack pointed to the “Leech Lake project,” and said another project should be ready soon. The Leech Lake Restoration Act returned 11,760 acres of national forest to the control of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. But he expressed concern the policy is facing some resistance.

“In addition to our need to do more work and more quickly work, we also need to push back on the notion that we should be restricted from doing this,” Vilsack told the group, noting the current House version of the Farm Bill contains a provision that would prohibit the return of land to tribal nations. “We’re obviously going to have to push back hard on that notion, which I am prepared to do. In the context of this meeting, I’m doing that right now, by saying this is not acceptable to us.”

In other funding news hailed by Vilsack, the USDA announced another $42.5 million in awards under the Indigenous Animals Harvesting and Meat Processing Grant Program, and $2.3 million to promote serving Indigenous foods in school meal programs.

Eight tribal nations will benefit from the grants to expand processing opportunities of meat from bison, reindeer, sheep and salmon and other animals native to North America. The agency partnered with a Native community development financial institution known as Oweesta Corp., which selected awardees.  Recipients include:

  • The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina will construct a center to process animals its members raise and hunt, including rainbow trout and bison for commercial export. Plans calling for creating a tribally owned brand of fish and meat with portions to be donated to community members as well.
  • The Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township in Maine will build an aquaculture facility to raise the North American eel, which they will process into food products including a Japanese delicacy known as kabayaki. The project is expected to create jobs and economic opportunities for hundreds of harvesters.
  • The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska will build a facility to process and store sustainably harvested buffalo meat for distribution to community members in need and across the country.

Some of the products from the new harvesting and meat processing projects could be considered for export, given the USDA-sponsored international trade mission—the first of its kind—to Canada. The historic mission to Vancouver, in Canada’s British Columbia, will showcase products from the Native Hawaiian community and tribal nations. Agricultural leaders from 15 tribal agribusinesses and 13 tribal nations will accompany Alexis M. Taylor, USDA’s undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.

Regarding food sovereignty, Vilsack noted that the USDA is taking steps to support nourishing schoolchildren with Indigenous foods. In some cases, he said, that can mean approving the use of traditional starchy vegetables to replace the grains usually specified for school meals. The $2.3 million in funding supports culturally relevant nutrition education and the use of Indigenous foods in school meals and snacks.

Project beneficiaries include school districts on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, charter schools across six Hawaiian Islands, federally recognized tribes throughout Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, 11 sovereign nations within Minnesota and neighboring states, and school districts in Maryland, North and South Carolina and Virginia.

Melanie Lenart is the News and Opinions Editor for Native Science Report.         

Story published June 11, 2024

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