Stacy Leeds, currently the only Native American law school dean in the country, is now helping the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas. (Cherokee.org)

Law School Creates Home for Native Agricultural Think Tank

Brian Daffron
2/22/13

Many people are aware of the movement for Native Americans to become either acquainted or re-acquainted with sustainable agriculture. However, how much has agriculture really grown among Native communities?

According to statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2007 Census of Agriculture Statistics—the last complete farm census taken by the United States Department of Agriculture—the number of farms and ranches where American Indians were the principal operators has grown to 34,706. This number is an actual 124 percent increase from 2002, the year of the last census.

With the amount of American Indian-controlled farms and ranches on the increase, it is important to have Native-created options to assist Native farmers and ranchers. For this reason, the University of Arkansas School of Law created the Indigenous Food and Agricultural Initiative.

Some may ask the reasons for a law school to house such a program. One reason is that the University of Arkansas (UA) School of Law has the only accredited Masters of Law program in agricultural law. Another reason is the law school dean is Stacy Leeds, a Cherokee Nation member and former Cherokee Supreme Court justice. With Leeds’ background in land use issues, trust land reform and governance, it is only a natural fit. 

Leeds’ hire for the director position is Janie Simms Hipp, a Chickasaw Nation member, graduate of the UA agricultural law LLM, and a former senior advisor of tribal relations for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. One of Hipp’s major accomplishments includes working on the Keepseagle settlement.

“When you are a senior advisor within the secretary’s office,” said Hipp, “you are really challenged every single day with a broad array of topics, issues and problems that need to be tackled, and policy interpretations that need to happen.”

With being a new initiative, there are many goals that have been set and many things yet to accomplish. At press time, their goals include establishing a web presence; encouraging Native youth through established programs such as the Future Farmers of America, which has 11,200 Native members; and being a resource for both individual Native farmers as well as tribal governments.

One of the largest concerns of the Indigenous Food and Agricutlural Initiative is in the area of tribal governance as it pertains to agricultural production. Hipp said that more tribal resolutions and laws need to be passed in order to augment and expand agricultural interest.

“It’s very, very important to address the governance issue,” said Hipp. “We think that because we’re sitting here in a law school and because this law school is home to an agricultural law specialization, we can hopefully build out the governance piece a bit. It’s very important that tribal governments think through ordinances of the laws they need to pass in order to, basically, cradle their developing agricultural and food-related businesses.”

Overall, the initiative wants to expand what’s already being done. This includes helping tribes already involved in agricultural business; helping the individual producer; and increasing traditional food usage. Also, the Indigenous Food and Agricutlural Initiative wants to work with Native organizations that are already assisting the Native farmer and rancher. This includes the Intertribal Agriculture Council, First Nations Development Institute and the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

 “There’s so much work to be done in this area to really embolden what we’re already seeing develop in Indian Country,” said Hipp, which includes “reconnections and being more visible about the connections that we’ve had for a long time anyway—with our foods and our traditional foods. The marketplace itself, in a broader sense, is so ready for [Native] products.”

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