USDA’s Strikeforce Brings Aid to Rural Indian Country

Kristi Eaton

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced nearly $9 million in grants to help assist farmers and ranchers who are socially disadvantaged, tribal members or veterans.

Many of the recipients are part of USDA’s StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity, a program established in 2010 to address issues related to rural poverty. The program is now in 880 counties in 21 states and Puerto Rico. Some of those counties involve tribal reservations and pueblos.

“Unfortunately, for many reasons, tribal communities are some of the poorest places in the United States,” said Leslie Wheelock, director of the Office of Tribal Relations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin. “In fact, the two poorest counties in the U.S. are on Sioux reservations in South Dakota. A meaningful change in rural poverty must address all rural poverty – including that in tribal communities.”

On many reservations, the infrastructure that many Americans take for granted, including safe roads and homes, clean water, electricity, broadband and cellphone access, is not available or is only available at a reduced rate or extremely costly, said Max Finberg, national coordinator for the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity initiative.

StrikeForce works to bring the USDA’s resources as well as resources from other federal agencies and from the private sector and philanthropy sector to Indian country.

The USDA has invested more than $6.5 billion in StrikeForce designated areas, including Indian country, which has helped create or save more than 5,100 jobs, helped put a roof over the heads of almost 126,000 homeowners and provided 69 million meals to hungry kids over the summer, according to the USDA.

StrikeForce launched in Oklahoma earlier this year and has been working closely with many of the tribes, including the Cheyenne-Arapahoe Tribes and the Choctaw Nation. The Chickasaw Nation recently received a grant from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service for its work on childhood hunger and nutrition, and senior USDA officials recently met with several of the tribes based in the northeast corner of the state, according to the USDA.

Elsie Meeks, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe based on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, was the state’s USDA Rural Development director.

Meeks said StrikeForce allowed her to direct staff to focus their efforts and assistance on tribal areas. One area of focus was on infrastructure projects including water and sewer. She was able to work with Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation as well as promote smaller Rural Business Enterprise grants to Lakota Funds, which works to promote economic sustainability on Pine Ridge, and Four Bands Community Fund for economic development.

“Also, staff began spending regular weekly visits to reservations to promote [USDA Rural Development's] 502 housing loans,” she said.

Strikeforce Tribal Counties (Courtesy USDA)

Meeks, who was South Dakota state director from 2009 to 2015, said that many times the USDA staff in Washington D.C., did not always understand the intricacies of working in Indian country.

“Most people in D.C. have not worked in the field let alone Indian country, so it is hard for them to grasp how things operate on reservations,” she said in an email interview.

For example, she said, in housing developments there are private for-profit developers in most towns and cities. But on reservations, either the tribal housing authority or a non-profit organization is the developer. The cost of construction and infrastructure is higher because the reservations are so remote. This coupled with the high rates of poverty make it impossible to pass on the full cost of a house to the residents, she said.

“Therefore the project has to be subsidized by grants,” she added.

Still, StrikeForce, which came to South Dakota in 2013, has had many positive outcomes. Among the program’s partners in South Dakota are Oglala Lakota College, Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and the South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition.

In 2014, the USDA took part in a grant writing workshop to train rural residents about finding and identifying grant possibilities and applying for grants. The workshop helped Sinte Gleska University receive a grant to purchase four 15-passenger vans to transport students. Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, meanwhile, was able to receive funds that allowed the college to remodel several remote learning centers across the reservation.

Tawney Brunsch is executive director of the Pine Ridge-based Lakota Funds, the first certified Native community development financial institution on a reservation. She said StrikeForce can set a grant application apart.

“The advantage of StrikeForce is that it will maybe be the difference between a grant application – if you’re competing with someone who’s not in a StrikeForce – it could be the difference between you being approved for funding and not,” she said.

In Arizona, StrikeForce partners with several Native American tribes as well as the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture, the Navajo Nation Department of Natural Resources and the Southwest Indian Agricultural Association.

Arizona, which has been a StrikeForce state since 2012, has a child poverty rate of 24.3 percent while the overall poverty rate is 18.9 percent, according to the USDA.

In September, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced grants to help rural small businesses in the state. The Yavapai-Apache Nation received a $57,000 grant to study the best location for a vineyard and winery operation while the San Carlos Apache Tribe Relending Enterprise received $100,000 to provide assistance to small businesses and $400,000 for its relending program.

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