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Rapid City woman to serve as USDA’s director of tribal relations
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Rapid City woman to serve as USDA’s director of tribal relations

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Heather Dawn Thompson

President Joe Biden has appointed a leader in the Rapid City community and field of federal Indian law to serve as Director of the the Office of Tribal Relations (OTR) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"It is an honor and a challenge to serve during these difficult times," Heather Dawn Thompson told the Journal. "Here in South Dakota we know better than most that rural Americans have felt frustrated, left out and left behind. And America’s first Americans are often thought of last."

Thompson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, will report directly to the USDA Secretary. Biden nominated Tom Vilsack for that position.

The OTR focuses on tribal agriculture and rural tribal economic development, Thompson said. USDA funds can go toward agriculture, food sovereignty, commodities, broadband, telecommunications, energy, electricity, rural housing, water, wastewater, rural job training, and rural small business owners.

"We need real systemic economic improvements in Indian Country and in all of rural South Dakota so our children can make a living, so our families can thrive," she said. "Empowering tribal nations is one of the answers. In other states where rural tribal nations have developed thriving businesses, they are often the largest employers for Natives and non-Natives in their entire region."

The Trump administration had made the OTR part of the Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement, Thompson said. Biden has moved it back to its own office. 

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This change “is a step toward restoring the office and the position of director so that USDA can effectively maintain nation-to-nation relationships in recognition of tribal sovereignty and to ensure that meaningful tribal consultation is standard practice across the department,” USDA Chief of Staff Katharine Ferguson said in a news release.

“It’s also important to have a director who can serve as a lead voice on tribal issues, relations and economic development within the Office of the Secretary because the needs and priorities of tribal nations and indigenous communities are cross cutting and must be kept front and center,” she said.

Thompson has been a lead researcher in uncovering what happened to children who attended the Rapid City Indian Boarding School and how Native Americans were left out when the 1,200 acres of boarding school land was divided. She’s now advocating for a park that would memorialize the children who died at and survived the school. She’s also advocating for a land exchange involving the old school land that would benefit the Rapid City Native American community. 

Thompson graduated cum laude from the Harvard Law School and is an expert in American Indian law, tribal sovereignty and rural tribal economic development, according to the news release. She most recently worked on issues of federal Indian law and tribal agriculture at the Greenberg Traurig law firm.

Thompson said she will resign from the law firm but continue to be active with the Rapid City Indian Boarding School Lands project. She plans to split her time between Rapid City and Washington, D.C. 

Before joining Greenberg Traurig, Thompson worked at Dentons law firm where she was one of only a handful of Native American partners at an “AmLaw 100” law firm, the news release says. She's served as a law clerk with the Attorney General’s Office of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, as counsel and policy advisor to the U.S. Senate’s Democratic Policy Committee, and as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for South Dakota’s Indian Country Section, where she prosecuted cases involving violence against women and children.

Thompson has served as president of the South Dakota Indian Country Bar Association and National Native American Bar Association, as well as director of government affairs for the National Congress of American Indians.​

"Rural Americans and Indian Country are facing unprecedented difficulties with our economies" and these aren't partisan issues, Thompson said. "One thing rural Americans and Indigenous Americans know best is how to pull together and take care of one another when times are tough."

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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