From rural incentives to infrastructure support to increased opportunities under the most recent farm bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has plenty of reasons for strong tribal connections. But recent history has been complex between the federal agency and tribes and American Indian citizens, due in part to the Keepseagle lawsuit involving past discrimination. In a recent interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, USDA Rural Development Under Secretary Doug O’ Brien shared ways the agency is trying to do better by tribes.
Please talk about new opportunities for tribes and Indians under the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP).
The program is authorized and funds are included in the recently signed farm bill. There are over $12 million in grants available and about $58 million in guaranteed loans for small businesses and farms across rural America – including Indian country – that want to install renewable energy systems or energy efficient systems. The bottom line is that this helps the bottom line of farms and small businesses by decreasing energy costs. We certainly are interested in having farmers, ranchers and small businesses in Indian country know about this program. They are eligible for it. And we have offices throughout the United States to work with them. We hope also they will check us out on USDA.gov.
REAP has supported more than 8,200 renewable energy and energy efficient projects nationwide under the Obama administration to date. Have many of those been Indian-focused?
We do have some, but it’s a real focus of ours in this round in 2014 to increase Indian participation. We are really pushing this year to make sure that it’s getting into communities that maybe haven’t picked up on the program as much. We want to improve the numbers.
There have been historic tensions between the USDA and Indian communities—are those tensions difficult to overcome?
That is certainly part of the context here. I just recently had the opportunity to visit and spend time with the Choctaw Nation and with the Cherokee Nation and Muscogee leadership. We continue at USDA to try to cultivate the very important trust relationship we have with tribal communities. We certainly will continue to reach out and value that relationship.
The USDA has a tribal division. Do you work closely with that office in your agency?
Yes, the Office of Tribal Relations is a really robust office at USDA that has really been built up over the last four or five years. Leslie Wheelock is our director there right now. I have good and strong interaction with that office to make sure that the tribal communities know they have an opportunity to provide input and consultation on our thinking.
When you visited the tribes recently, what was the focus?
With Choctaw, the main reason we were there was that they are the first tribal designee for the promise zone initiative of the White House. It’s an effort by the federal government to partner with communities in more robust ways, making sure that federal programs are implemented in ways that have the greatest impact. The initiative also provides volunteers and preferences for some key federal programs. Choctaw is very much looking at their cultural and natural assets and how to grow tourism, as well as their food programs.
As the USDA Rural Development Under Secretary, do you work with all tribes?
The vast majority, if not all tribal communities, include at least a portion of area that would meet our definitions of rural, so we work with pretty much all of the tribal nations. With some, we have a pretty robust history; others, we are working to build our relationship.
Personally, how long did it take you to get up to speed on the tribal-federal relationship and what it entails?
I’ve had opportunities to testify before Senate Banking on Indian housing issues; I’ve been before the Indian Affairs Committee on rural development issues. I’ve been here since just about the beginning of the administration, and early on, I did work on the lawsuits, including Pigford and Keepseagle. It was a great orientation for me. And as our tribal consultations have progressed, it has provided more opportunity to delve into these issues. I enjoy it. It’s a complicated and unique area, but we have a terrifically important responsibility and relationship.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.