Native American Agriculture Fund

Date: June 5, 2019
Interviewer: Sarah Ballew, Headwater People
Janie Hipp (Chickasaw Nation), President/CEO; Founding Director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law

Quick Stats about the Native American Agriculture Fund
NAAF is a trust devoted solely to serving the Native American farming and ranching community. The trust is funded and created by the settlement of the landmark Keepseagle v. Vilsack class-action lawsuit filed in 1999, where plaintiffs alleged that since 1981, the USDA denied Native American farmers and ranchers, nationwide, the same opportunities as white farmers to obtain low-interest rate loans and loan servicing, causing them hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses.

On April 28, 2011, the U.S. District Court granted final approval of a historic settlement of $760 million between Native American farmers and ranchers and the USDA. The Keepseagle settlement agreement required USDA to 1) pay $680 million in damages to thousands of Native Americans, to 2) forgive up to $80 million in outstanding farm loan debt, and to 3) improve the farm loan services USDA provides to Native Americans.

Pursuant to the April 20, 2016 modification of the settlement, $266 million, the remainder of the unclaimed funds, go to the Native American Agriculture Fund, a trust created as part of the settlement modification, and empowered to fund Native American agricultural programs through non-profit organizations over the next 20 years.

The Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF) provides grants to eligible organizations for business assistance, agricultural education, technical support, and advocacy services to support Native farmers and ranchers.

Key Considerations:
The Keepseagle case centers on access to credit and involves individual Native farmers and ranchers. The case did not involve community groups or tribal governments.

The trust agreement gives NAAF the authority to fund in 4 areas - grant funding, business assistance, technical support, and agricultural education and advocacy.

Food sovereignty is a very complex concept with no legal definition in the law. The concept involves everything from conservation of land and resources to scaling up community gardens to achieve sustainable, agricultural systems and food systems for our communities to tribal sovereignty.

The trust agreement doesn’t limit NAAF to just traditional foods.

NAAF is in the early stages of setting its systems and administrative capacity up.

Strengths, Keys for Success:
As a spend down trust, NAAF can’t act in perpetuity. What they do intend to do is to really give seed to a lot of amazing things or help things that are already happening to get better and grow.

NAAF appreciates the amount of progress that can be done through grant making, but they understand power of the fund is actually to leverage new, sustainable partnerships. There are many tribes who are interested in building agricultural infrastructure and could use the entire trust amount to just do one project. For the impact of the trust to reach far into the future and to go laterally across all tribes, new partnerships and relationships that can keep the reasons for the Keepseagle case from repeating are paramount.

For the value the trust is intended for is to be sustained, the money will not be what’s lasting. NAAF is looking for ways to instigate, coalesce, and convene partnerships so that large-scale systems change that benefits Native people throughout the country can emerge, the money is just an important tool, not real sought after value.

Barriers and Challenges:
Making wise and deliberate choices for spending. There are current trends in philanthropy of making long-term commitments as opposed to short spurts. Decisions like that in this case have to be very thoughtfully made. This is a singular opportunity and can’t be squandered.

Thinking through and understanding the viability and potential of whole systems is a challenge. Success depends on every piece of the puzzle to be working and investing in a good idea that is dependent on other pieces is complex.

Money cannot be given to individual farmers according to the trust agreement

Insights for others:
We can talk about health and nutrition and healthy food access all we want, but if we don't talk about the food and where the food has come from, what the food is, and who's doing the food. Who is actually feeding us, then we have lost the whole idea

We sometimes forget that farming and agriculture is not the easiest thing to do with your life. So the people who do choose to do it, we need to help them, we need to support them, and we need to make sure that they have what they need to keep doing it. And we don’t always think about food systems in that way.

Food systems hinge on people.