Q&A: Curriculum Supports Sustainable Agriculture on American Indian Lands

Targeted News Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 13 -- Two Nevada educators have worked to bring the federal government and Native American tribes closer together through a science-based educational curriculum centered on tribal histories. The publication, "People of the Land," not only provides a deeper look into historical and economic factors, but works to improve relations between key tribal liaisons in the Department of Agriculture and American Indian ranchers and farmers in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. 

Staci Emm and Loretta Singletary are both educators at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. They brought their unique understandings of natural resource and community development together to create a work intended to bolster sustainable agricultural efforts on American Indian lands. 

The curriculum received a gold medal from the Association of Natural Resource Extension Professionals. 

The following is an interview with Singletary and Emm: 

TNS: What drove you to create "People of the Land"? 

EMM/SINGLETARY: Staci led a focus group process at the 2003 Nevada Indian Agricultural Environmental Summit in Elko, Nevada. A knowledge gap was identified to exist between USDA professionals and tribal leaders, staff and members concerning how the cultural, sociopolitical and economic environments unique to reservations influence USDA program participation. 

Focus groups participants described this knowledge gap as "the Indian situation." Agriculture professionals interviewed indicated that they did not fully understand the issues that agriculture producers face on reservation lands - hence the expression "Indian situation." 

The focus group research results indicate that both Indian producers and agriculture professionals who work with producers perceive there are major obstacles to the adoption of sustainable agriculture and natural resource management practices on Indian reservations. 

This identified knowledge gap suggests that in order to work more effectively with American Indian individuals and reservation governments, agriculture professionals must improve their understanding and appreciation of individual tribal social, political and economic environments on reservations. 

A grant opportunity became available via Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education in 2005. We applied and were successful in receiving the funding needed to create People of the Land. The research-based information featured in our self-paced curriculum addresses this knowledge gap by providing a thorough examination of the cultural, historical, social, political and economic attributes on selected Indian reservations within a select four-state area of the inner mountain western United States. 

The resulting professional development curriculum seeks to address the knowledge gap that currently exists and prohibits agency professionals from working as effectively as possible on Indian lands. 

TNS: How did your specialties, such as Staci's work in natural resource programs or Loretta's work in water issues or dispute management, contribute to the publication? 

EMM/SINGLETARY: Staci's professional and personal experiences with natural resource issues unique to reservation environments inspired the idea for creating the program and supporting curriculum. She has experienced first-hand the obstacles that American Indians face in implementing USDA programs specifically on her 36 acres of allotted lands on the Walker River Reservation in Nevada, where she was raised. 

Loretta's work in water issues and dispute management stems from a background in public policy and public issues education which explores how public policy can inadvertently lead to complex public and natural resource conflicts. Her personal perceptions toward the project stem from her experiences as a first-generation Estonian-American who was raised on a farm in South Carolina. 

In addition to the results of the 2003 focus group assessment, we developed and conducted a Quality of Life study on the 10 largest reservations in the four-state area. We felt that in order to facilitate sustainable agriculture and natural resource management practices on reservation lands, agriculture professionals might benefit from examining the perceptions of those who live on reservation lands concerning issues that may affect quality of life, including agriculture and natural resource issues. 

Further, we compared their perceptions with those of agriculture professionals working on American Indian reservations. In addition to collected primary data, we drew upon our professional and personal background and experiences to further identify and research topics that provide the basic and necessary information that a USDA professional might need to work more effectively on Indian lands. 

Additionally, the curriculum material relied heavily upon analyses of secondary data, archived documents, research published in refereed journals and theoretical models concerning economic development and educational outreach designed specifically for American Indian populations. 

TNS: How will "People of the Land" directly affect American Indian farmers and ranchers in the four states covered (Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington)? 

EMM/SINGLETARY: We are finding that although our curriculum is geared toward USDA professionals, Indian farmers and ranchers are interested and desire to learn the information as well. In terms of how we anticipate American Indian farmers and ranchers will be affected, we expect that more USDA programs will be implemented on Indian lands as a result of increases in USDA professionals' knowledge and awareness of obstacles that have prevented implementation in the past. Likewise, we hope that American Indian farmers and ranchers will feel more comfortable working with USDA professionals and therefore increase their participation in programs offered. 

TNS: How much of a focus was sustainability, in terms of processes and especially, in terms of limited resources? What factors into "sustainable agriculture"? 

EMM/SINGLETARY: In terms of sustainability, our goal is to increase the number of American Indian farmers and ranchers that own, operate, sustain, and improve agricultural operations on Indian reservations. The short-term goal is to increase Indian participation in USDA programs, including farm loan, agricultural and rural environmental conservation, forestry incentives, integrated farm management, and commodity (including organic) programs. 

American Indian tribes and individual farmers and ranchers are socially disadvantaged due to the impact of historical federal Indian policies, significant disparities in education of current USDA programs available, and issues that accompany geographic isolation and Indian land tenure designations. 

While American Indian farmers and ranchers contribute significantly to the economic base of rural reservations, opportunities exist to increase those contributions. USDA programs are designed to increase farm and ranch profitability and sustain rural reservation communities. The 2010 Farm Bill provisions offer considerable opportunities for American Indian tribes and individual farmers and ranchers to participate in USDA assistance programs. 

On most American Indian reservations, however, federal and state assistance programs are underutilized due to: a) a lack of USDA professionals' knowledge concerning the social, economic and political environments unique to Indian reservations; b) a lack of USDA agency outreach efforts specifically designed to educate American Indian farmers and ranchers about available assistance programs and how to participate; and c) lack of American Indian farmers/ranchers' knowledge concerning the availability and opportunity for assistance to initiate, sustain or expand agricultural operations on reservation lands. 

TNS: How have tribal leaders voiced their concerns regarding agricultural development on American Indian lands? 

EMM/SINGLETARY: The tribal leaders we have worked with in this four-state program have embraced the program and curriculum. We realize that some tribal leaders advocate agricultural development on reservation lands but we are not a part of that advocacy effort. Instead, we seek to provide research based information to educate and in some cases empower individuals to make better, more informed decisions. 

TNS: How was tribal history drawn upon? Through tribal elders? 

EMM/SINGLETARY: Tribal history was drawn from a combination of sources including face-to-face interviews with tribal members (including elders) as well as credible archived documents. Staci was born and raised on the Walker River Reservation in Nevada and her direct experiences as a tribal member and American Indian descendant opened many doors for us to conduct the research that was necessary for this project. 

We were welcomed warmly on the reservations we visited and were able to learn a great deal about reservation culture, history, economy, environment, and other important information during our tours on these reservations. Over the 3 years of our research project we visited these reservations a number of times to meet with tribal members and learn about reservation issues first-hand. 

TNS: Your study identifies a knowledge gap that emphasizes the need for further comprehension of tribal histories and cultures - how did you develop the training techniques and examples to cover such a broad spectrum of tribes and areas? 

EMM/SINGLETARY: While the knowledge gap emphasizes the need to increase knowledge of the social, political and economic environment of the reservations in the four-state area, it is important to understand that historical federal Indian policy and evolving land-tenure issues have impacted a majority of these tribes and land bases in similar ways. This does not mean that these Tribes or reservations are alike, but share patterns and issues that have evolved from some of the same historical federal policies. 

When creating the training techniques, we used examples of how different American Indian people dealt with the policies forced upon them. Conversations with tribal members, tribal leaders and tribal elders significantly influenced our educational design and continues to influence the process we use in educating program participants. 

TNS: Have other curricula examined cultural and historical factors as an approach to communication or is this the first of its kind? 

EMM/SINGLETARY: In terms of Extension outreach programs and curricula focusing on American Indian reservation agricultural and natural resource issues, we believe this may be one of the first of its kind. Our focus on communication stems from each of our interests in developing outreach programs and materials that are effective and can make an impact on the ground. 

We have found that effective communication and quality relationships are keys to any outreach program having an impact. This is especially the case when the issues involve populations where distrust has become the cultural norm. 

TNS: How much of an economic driver is agriculture in rural reservations? 

EMM/SINGLETARY: Agriculture was not the main economic driver for most of the American Indian Tribes on the reservations in our project area. It is known that reservation agriculture contributes millions of dollars of crop value annually on these reservations. However, it is unknown if agriculture is the main economic driver on the reservations for American Indian individual farmer and rancher households. 

This still has to be determined. Until recently, the agriculture census relied on tribal representatives to give the operator counts on reservations. USDA Agriculture Statistics in collaboration with Intertribal Agriculture Council has increased outreach efforts to more effectively reach American Indian farmers and ranchers, and census numbers have increased. 

TNS: How does American Indian land tenure challenge sustainable agriculture? 

EMM/SINGLETARY: As a result of the earlier federal Indian policy, particularly the General Allotment Act and its amendments, land tenure patterns on Indian reservations present significant and ongoing natural resource management challenges. Perhaps the best example of this involves trust allotments and fractionation. That is, historically, when an allottee died, the federal government distributed ownership of the allotment equally among heirs, but as shared interest rather than as individual tracts. 

The process of fractionation created undivided interests in allotments co-owned by other heirs. With each generation, the number of undivided interests increased over time, resulting in highly fractionated parcels (parcels with multiple owners, each having an undivided interest). 

Some trust allotments can have as many as 500 or more co-owners. An obvious problem that arises from fractionation, in addition to the large numbers of co-owners, is that no co-owner owns a specific location within the allotment. Thus, in order to farm the land, build a home, or to keep livestock on the property, a co-owner must secure permission from a majority of the allotment co-owners. 

Highly fractionated interests affect land use decisions that include leasing restricted Indian land. In order to lease a trust allotment, a majority of the fractionated interests must agree to the lease. Fractionation raises issues concerning crucial resource management decisions and actions on Indian lands that benefit adjacent property owners, as well as the common good, such as noxious weed control and wildfire fuels reduction. 

Economists have shown that when compared with fee simple land, the more severe the fractionation, the lower the relative agricultural output. Also, in cases involving highly fractionated parcels, opportunity costs of time involved to locate co-owners in order to make strategic decisions or complete real estate transactions lowers the economic value of the property. 

Another important issue resulting from federal Indian policy is the checkerboard land tenure pattern that exists today. That is land on and near Indian reservations maybe owned by tribes, individual Indians (as either trust or fee simple allotments), non-Indians, or county, state and federal governments. These complex ownership patterns, combining restricted Indian lands with fee simple and public ownership, within the boundaries of Indian reservations, create numerous and ongoing jurisdictional and resource management issues. 

TNS: How available is federal support for Native American farmers? 

EMM/SINGLETARY: There are two federal agencies that deal directly with agriculture which include the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Office of Special Trustee. There are also specific agencies under USDA that provide support specifically for American Indian farmers and ranchers. Communication, relationship building and outreach of all agencies and others involved could improve. 

On most American Indian reservations, federal and state assistance programs are underutilized due to: a) a lack of USDA professionals' knowledge concerning the social, economic and political environments unique to Indian reservations; b) a lack of USDA agency outreach efforts specifically designed to educate American Indian farmers and ranchers about available assistance programs and how to participate; and c) lack of American Indian farmers/ranchers' knowledge concerning the availability and opportunity for assistance to initiate, sustain or expand agricultural operations on reservation lands. 


Zaher Karp is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.