New tribal relations director to tackle native issues through diplomacy, education

RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA) – A South Dakota attorney recently appointed to a federal post under the U.S. Department of Agriculture seeks an early start on tackling native issues.

In an interview with KOTA Territory News on Tuesday, Heather Dawn Thompson, director of the Office of Tribal Relations (OTR), plans to focus on four key issues affecting Native Americans, including those on Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian Reservations: economic development, COVID-19, tribal equity and climate change.

Thompson says tribal governments generate most of their revenue through businesses in the private sector, like casinos and hotels, rather than taxes. She adds many reservation-based businesses have been hindered by the pandemic, interrupting part of the cash flow to the tribes.

The new director adds COVID-19 has afflicted a relatively disproportionate number of Native Americans compared to non-natives. She emphasized the significance of Native American elders, cornerstones of native culture, and the epistemological impact their deaths have on their communities.

“We are losing, essentially, our ‘Googles’ – our encyclopedias. These are our culture bearers – our language keepers – and they are irreplaceable,” Thompson said. “I am delighted the USDA has decided to assist in this effort.”

Under the Biden administration, the OTR will report directly to the Secretary of Agriculture at USDA, which is set to be Secretary-nominee Tom Vilsack. Formerly, the relations branch reported to a national public outreach office in USDA.

Thompson says the USDA’s familiarity with rural communities will prove useful in her outreach efforts among native populations, including distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

Additionally, she adds she will act as a diplomat between federal and tribal governments in her new role. She says tribal governments are often seen as “complex” to non-natives and many institutions do not properly educate youth on how this legislative body works.

CORRECTION: a previous version of this article stated that Thompson would work under the USDA. This article has been corrected to state that Thompson reports directly to the Secretary of Agriculture.

Copyright 2021 KOTA. All rights reserved.

Janelle B. Smith

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