Ark.-based trust serves Native farming, ranching communities
A graph from the Native American Agriculture Fund pinpoints rural Native American populations. The Fayetteville, Arkansas-based Native American Agriculture Fund, also known as NAAF, provides grants and services that support and promote Native Americans’ continued engagement in agriculture. COURTESY
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – A private charitable trust created in 2018 to manage more than $260 million from a landmark class-action lawsuit is tasked with distributing the funds throughout Indian Country.
The Fayetteville-based Native American Agriculture Fund, also known as NAAF, provides grants and services that support and promote Native Americans’ continued engagement in agriculture.
“We are really, really unique,” NAAF Communications Director Maria Givens said. “We’re kind of the first of our kind, definitely in the Native agriculture space, but also just in Indian Country and in agriculture.”
The largest philanthropic organization devoted solely to serving the Native American farming and ranching community, NAAF was created by the settlement of the landmark Keepseagle v. Vilsack class-action lawsuit.
“There was a class-action suit against the United States because the U.S. Department of Agriculture was discriminating against Native farmers and ranchers,” Givens said. “Basically, people would go to their (Farm Service Agency) offices and would say, ‘Hey I want to apply for this,’ and USDA would tell them no, don’t apply, even though they were eligible. This discrimination was happening all over the country in different ways.”
According to NAAF, the settlement resulted in creation of a $680 million compensation fund with an additional $80 million in debt relief. A six-month claims process resulted in approved claims for more than 3,600 Native farmers and ranchers. NAAF was created to dole out the remaining $263 million in settlement money to tribes, community development financial institutions, educational institutions and 501(c)(3) organizations.
“The court gave us 20 years to spend down that money,” Givens said. “We can’t accept new donations. We don’t fundraise. Our job is just to get grants out the door.”
The organization recently released a report detailing its vision for the future of Native agriculture-related infrastructure. It calls for a minimum $3.4 billion investment to support Native food and agriculture.
NAAF calls it a plan to build processing, packaging and distribution infrastructure to support Indian Country’s farmers, ranchers, fishers and harvesters while simultaneously feeding tribal communities and meeting their nutritional needs. The “bold plan,” said NAAF CEO Janie Simms, will “build strong rural economies and strengthen food systems so that during the most challenging times, Indian Country can feed itself.”
“Many voices are now calling for fundamental changes within our nation’s food systems,” she said. “Native people have known for many decades that such change is overdue. It is time to provide an infrastructure roadmap for the future of Native agriculture. Our collective vision as we recover and rebuild from COVID-19 must ensure that no region of Indian Country is left behind in achieving food systems improvement, coordination and growth.”
The report advocates for investment into regional food trade hubs to serve as central points for the aggregation of food produced in specific regions.
“For too long, Native producers, communities, tribes and regions have not had the infrastructure necessary to create a resilient and thriving regional food system,” the report states. “A regional food system grounded in Native culture that provides economic opportunities and diversification for tribes and producers to feed their communities is necessary. After COVID-19, it is clear that feeding our people is one of the most essential functions of our society and requires a new solution particularly as we recover and rebuild post COVID-19.”
For information, visit nativeamericanagriculturefund.org