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Heather Dawn Thompson serves as director of the Office of Tribal Relations at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Courtesy photo
Tribal nations enjoy ‘diplomatic’ status at Department of Agriculture
Thursday, May 27, 2021

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is working to elevate its relationship with tribal nations and a Lakota woman is leading the way.

Heather Dawn Thompson, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, joined the Joe Biden administration on January 20, on the president’s first day in office. As director of the Office of Tribal Relations, she’s helping ensure that Indian Country is front and center at the USDA.

“We oversee the diplomatic relationship, the government-to-government, nation-to-nation relationship, between the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and all the tribal nations,” Thompson said in describing her role as leader of the tribal office.

As part of the efforts to elevate Indian Country, Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced the establishment of the Hall of Tribal Nations at the USDA. He’s inviting every federally recognized tribe to submit a flag for a new installation at his agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“Some of the tribal leaders know that the Department of the Interior, our sister agency, has a Hall of Tribal Nations and we would like to replicate that, and honor our diplomatic relationship, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well,” Thompson said in an interview.

A forthcoming Dear Tribal Leader letter will contain a formal request for the flags, Thompson said. Tribes are being asked to send a flag, no larger than 3-feet by 5-feet, for placement in a prominent location at the USDA’s building in the nation’s capital.

“We will be hanging them the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C., which is right within the Secretary’s office, overlooking the National Mall,” Thompson told Indianz.Com.

Additionally, the USDA plans to promote the works of Native artists. Thompson said the goal is to ensure visitors to the USDA learn about the “creativity of Indian Country.”

“We’ve also been collecting a series of pieces of art from a number of amazing, modern Native American artists,” Thompson said, citing Bunky Echo-Hawk, who is Pawnee, and Steven Paul Judd, who is Choctaw and Kiowa, as some of the people she’s working to bring to the Hall of Tribal Nations.

“We welcome the loan of additional pieces from interested artists who would like us to highlight and honor their amazing art,” Thompson added.

Beyond the tribal flag and Native artist installation, Thompson said Secretary Vilsack has been taking other steps to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship at the USDA. On his first day on the job in February, she noted that he restored the Office of Tribal Relations to a higher status within the agency.

“Secretary Vilsack has never ceased to amaze me in his level of knowledge about Indian Country and his level of commitment,” said Thompson, who has spent decades working in Indian law and policy at the national and tribal levels.

“I work directly for him and he explicitly moved the Office of Tribal Relations back to be directly under him so that is has the prestige and access that is appropriate for a nation-to-nation conversation,” she said of Vilsack, who previously served as Secretary of Agriculture during the Barack Obama presidency.

But when Donald Trump came on board, the Office of Tribal Relations lost its footing, having been effectively demoted, with the director reporting to a lower-level official. Under Vilsack, tribes now have direct access to the Secretary, who is a member of the President Biden’s Cabinet.

“He knows the issues and he’s personally and actively engaged in conversations on tribal nations,” Thompson said of Vilsack. “It has been just a real honor to work for him.”

Despite the high-level attention in the nation’s capital, the USDA remains effectively closed for most business, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted American Indians and Alaska Native at disproportionate rates. Most political appointees continue to work remotely as a result.

But Thompson said the Biden administration continues to monitor the situation, with an eye toward welcoming Indian Country to D.C. for the official debut of the Hall of Tribal Nations, possibly later this year.

“We are hoping that there will be a series of tribal leader events in the late fall, so late November or early December,” said Thompson. “That of course, has to be decided after we determine whether we are going back to work in person, and what the COVID outlook looks like.”

“But as soon as that occurs, we will be having a ribbon-cutting ceremony and welcoming tribal leaders to come meet with the Secretary, and see the Hall of Tribal Nations,“ she added.

The Office of Tribal Relations can be reached via email at To stay up-to-date with OTR news, readers can
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Tribes wishing to contribute flags to the Hall of Tribal Nations at the USDA can send them to:

U.S. Department of Agriculture
Attention: Tribal Flags/Office of Tribal Relations
1400 Independence Avenue SW
Room 200A J.L. Whitten Building
Washington, DC 20250