Chairman John Berrey of the Quapaw Nation testifies at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on agricultural issues in Indian Country on January 17, 2018. Photo: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

John Berrey: Congress can do what's right for Indian Country

Advancing Indian Tribal Interests in the 2018 Farm Bill
By John L. Berrey
Chairman, Quapaw Nation

Last month, I was honored to be re-elected as Chairman of the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma (O-Gah-Pah), a tribe known for its many successes. Our tribal agricultural, food and nutrition programs are second to none in our community, and we boast of establishing the only U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified cattle and bison facility on tribal trust lands in the U.S.

I am extremely proud of our Tribe and its efforts to provide nutritious food to tribal members, as well as to people who live in our surrounding communities. I have personally met several times with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and I believe his genuine support for tribal self-determination, combined with a great desire to feed the American people, are fundamental things we can agree on.

More can be done by my Tribe and tribes across the country if we are provided the tools and resources to get the job done.

In June, the U.S. Senate passed an $867 billion, 5-year extension of the food and nutrition programs offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The “Farm Bill” as it is known, is a sweeping rewrite of the hundreds of agriculture, nutrition, forestry, rural development, trade, and other programs and services the USDA manages.

Historically, Indian Country has not effectively accessed and benefitted from these programs and services, but there are reasons to be optimistic that this time around Congress will make tribes true partners in enacting a robust Farm Bill.

In engineering Senate passage, Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) dealt with controversial amendments dealing with exports to Cuba as well as attempts to limit the President’s authority to levy tariffs on foreign imports; both of these amendments could have spelled trouble for the fate of the Senate bill.

The result was a resounding 86-11 vote in favor of the bill; a bi-partisan vote that is rarely seen these days in Washington.

Days earlier, the House passed its own version of the Farm Bill on a party-line vote of 213-211. Probably most controversial, the House bill conditions participation in the federal food stamps program (now called the “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program”) on the fulfillment of new work requirements pushed by the Trump Administration and House Republican leadership.

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The Senate’s Version of a Farm Bill
The Senate-passed bill has many of the provisions originally included in the “Cultivating Resources, Opportunity, Prosperity, and Sustainability (CROPS) for Indian Country Act,” developed by Committee on Indian Affairs Chairman John Hoeven (R-ND) and Vice Chairman Tom Udall (D-NM). This bill was approved by that Committee in May, just in time for consideration for inclusion in the larger Farm Bill. The Senate-passed version has the following tribal components:

· A provision to administer the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations under the contracting authority of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act;

· Establishment of a permanent Tribal Advisory Committee to guide and advise the Secretary of Agriculture and the Office of Tribal Relations on tribal matters;

· Establishment of a permanent Rural Development Tribal Technical Assistance Office to ensure tribes can effectively access the huge array of Rural Development programs like utilities, housing and business finance, and others;

· Provisions to open new, foreign markets for tribal products by encouraging and facilitating greater participation by Indian farmers and ranchers in international trade missions;

· Provisions to address food fraud by directing the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to report on the impact of traditional and tribally-produced food in the marketplace;

· Language to provide refinancing authority to USDA projects in substantially underserved trust areas so that electric, broadband, and water infrastructure improvements can be undertaken; and

· Robust provisions regarding research and community facilities for Tribal Colleges and Universities; and others.

The House Version of the Farm Bill
The House version of the bill also contains a solid number of good tribal provisions, including:

· A mandated GAO report on the agricultural credit needs of tribes and their members;

· Authorization for tribes to enter into “good neighbor agreements” to conduct forest restoration activities on Forest Service lands;

· Establishment of an Office of the Tribal Relations in the Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement to advise the Secretary on policies related to tribal agriculture; and

· Establishment of the “New Beginnings Initiative” requiring the Secretary to make funds available to tribal land-grant colleges or universities.

Next Steps: Where do we go from Here?
These are all solid, pro-tribal provisions and deserve our best efforts to protect them when the House and Senate meet in the weeks ahead in a Conference Committee to hammer out the differences between the two competing bills. On July 17, 2018, the House voted to go to Conference and appointed 29 conferees to represent the House in the Conference. The Senate followed suit on July 31, 2018 and appointed 9 of its own conferees.

The formal Conference Committee will begin deliberations on September 5th and, as we move into Conference, Indian tribes must continue to advocate to make sure the strongest tribal provisions make their way into the final bill that ends up on the President’s desk.

Working on these matters, I have been fortunate to be part of a team spearheaded by the Native Farm Bill Coalition, the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, the National Congress of American Indians and Indian tribes from across the country.

We did not get everything we wanted in either the House or Senate bills, but the provisions included so far will make major, historic inroads in getting tribes better access and maximum use of USDA programs and services.

Final Thoughts
There are many reasons I am hopeful Congress will do right by Indian Country: we have friends on both sides of the political aisle, and both sides of Capitol Hill, as well as in the Trump Administration.

Back in July, while waiting for a meeting in Senator Pat Roberts’ office, I was heartened by something I saw hanging in his office. There, in a beautiful, wood frame is a color photograph of former Senators Bob Dole (R), Dan Inouye (D), Ken Salazar (D) and Pat Roberts (R). They were all laughing and evidently in very good spirits.

Accompanying the photograph is a letter dated 2011 from Inouye to Roberts and, in it, Inouye thanked Roberts for sharing the photo, and goes on to say that “I[t] is a reminder of a time when men could conduct themselves like decent men.”

In hyper-partisan Washington, the Farm Bill presents a rare opportunity for Congress to do as Senator Inouye reflected and do what is right for Indian tribes and the country as a whole.

John L. Berrey is the current Chairman of the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma, and formerly a member of the Secretary’s Council on Native American Farming and Ranching. He is part Quapaw, part Osage, and is a fourth-generation rancher on his family’s original Osage allotment north of Tulsa.

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