Agriculture Secretary Vilsack announced the establishment of a special advisory board to help USDA officials ensure Native Americans participate in and benefit from USDA programs. The board is being put in place as part of the Keepseagle settlement.

"The Council for Native American Farming and Ranching will help native governments, businesses, farmers and ranchers partner with USDA to create jobs, drive economic growth and strengthen tribal communities," Vilsack said.

The Council will work closely with the Office of Tribal Relations, Farm Service Agency and other USDA agencies to improve the success of Native farmers and ranchers who access USDA's entire portfolio of programs to build and achieve profitability in their businesses. USDA recently established a technical assistance network with the Intertribal Agriculture Council. The network works across Indian Country in 13 regional locations. USDA also recently launched a strike force initiative in southeastern states that is now expanding to western states with substantial Native American populations. These two technical assistance efforts will work together to ensure the unique challenges of Native Americans, living both on and off reservations, can be addressed. Agriculture is the second largest employer in Indian Country, according to the National Congress of American Indians.

All nominations for advisory board membership should be sent by Jan. 20, 2012 to: Thomas Vilsack, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC, 20250, Attn: Council for Native American Farmers and Ranchers. Send comments to the Office of Tribal Relations, 500A Whitten Building, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington D.C., 20250.

Establishing the board is just one of the recent steps USDA has taken and will take to assist Native Americans. USDA's Rural Housing Service will soon send a notice to all Rural Development offices reminding them that direct home loan borrowers on Native lands can consider AMERIND Corporation for their insurance needs. AMERIND is a tribal-owned organization that acts as a risk management pool for insurance coverage of homes and other private and community structures on Native lands. The notice does not endorse AMERIND over other insurers, but provides another option for borrowers on Native lands to meeting the insurance requirements of the program. USDA is also considering regulatory changes to expand the types of USDA projects that AMERIND can insure.

Funding

In addition to these recent commitments, USDA supports tribal areas with funding for infrastructure improvements, small businesses and farmers and ranchers.

On the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, USDA has provided nearly $30 million in the last two years to help replace an old and rapidly declining water system that was hit hard by an ice storm in January of 2010. USDA has worked closely with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal government and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal government to provide over a $1 million to each reservation to prevent further loss of livestock on these ag-dependent reservations.

Broadband internet is an increasingly important tool for building profitable farm and ranch operations, growing businesses and thriving communities. That is why – over the past 3 years – USDA has invested over $400 million dollars in 41 projects to bring broadband to reservations and other tribal communities. Nearly half of this funding has gone directly to tribes or tribally-owned businesses.

USDA has also offered direct support to help tribal businesses grow. Last year alone the Department provided dozens of loan guarantees and grants worth nearly $12 million. Also in the past fiscal year, USDA provided over $50 million in conservation funding to tribes – an 85% increase over the year before.

Keepseagle v Vilsack was a lawsuit alleging that USDA discriminated against Native American farmers and ranchers in the way it operated the Farm Loan Program. The lawsuit was settled late last year, and the settlement has been approved by the court. The filing period for claims opened June 29, 2011, and continues for 180 days until December 27, 2011. Up to $760 million will be made available in monetary relief, debt relief and tax relief to successful claimants. Claimant services representatives can be reached through calling 1-888-233-5506. Claimants must register for a claims package by calling the number or visiting http://www.indianfarmclass.com.

Since taking office, President Obama's Administration has taken historic steps to improve the lives of Native Americans, put people back to work and build thriving economies in tribal communities. At USDA, Secretary Vilsack has worked at President Obama's direction to deepen and strengthen our relationships with tribal communities and tribal governments. Vilsack has named – for the first time ever at USDA – a Senior Advisor on Tribal Relations who reports directly to him. To ensure tribes have greater access to the full breadth of USDA programs, and that the Department has engaged in Tribal consultation on over 60 rules.