Heather Dawn Thompson, Thašúŋke Híŋ Zi Wiŋ, has been appointed as Director of the Office of Tribal Relations (OTR) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thompson is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and from Rapid City. She reports directly to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack.
Diverse and bipartisan
Thompson’s appointment is part of the trend to appoint women and diverse ethnic groups in the Biden administration. “I’m going to keep my commitment that the administration, both in the White House and outside in the Cabinet, is going to look like the country,” Biden said while still president-elect.
Her appointment is especially relevant to the bipartisan issues at hand in South Dakota. In an interview with South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s Lori Walsh, Thompson said, “Agricultural issues, rural economic development issues, tribal issues. Frankly, they’re just not partisan issues. They’re American issues.”
Deep roots on Cheyenne River
Thompson lives with her family between Rapid City and the Pine Ridge Reservation. In her new job she will divide her time between South Dakota and Washington. DC.
She is the daughter of Keith Richard Thompson and Cleo Dolphus Thompson. On her dad’s side she descends from a long line of farmers and a large Mormon family.
Her mother’s family comes from Cheyenne River. Cleo Thompson is the daughter of Margaret “Mick” Dolphus and Severt “Dutch” Thompson. Through her mother she can trace her matrilineal lineage back at least six generations to Red Dressing who married One Iron Horse. Their daughter Mary “Good Elk Woman” married Frederick Dupuis. The town of Dupree is named after one of her sons.
Mary “Good Elk Woman’s” daughter Marcella married Doug Carlin. Marcella’s daughter Lillian married Frank Briggs. Her daughter Mick is Heather’s grandmother. [Ed. Note: Thompson shares wonderful family history, links, and photos on her web site heatherdawnthompson.com.]
Thompson graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School. She holds a master’s in Public Policy with honors from the University of Florida and a bachelor’s in International Studies from Carnegie Mellon University.
Most recently she practiced American Indian law at Greenberg Traurig in Washington, DC, and Rapid City. She is a Bush Foundation Fellow in Tribal Finance, sustainable enterprises, and Native American food sovereignty. She serves on the Advisory Board for the Cheyenne River Youth Project.
Thompson has taken the lead in advocating for remembrance and research into the history of the Rapid City Indian Boarding School. She advocates for a park to memorialize the children who died and who survived the school and for a land exchange so the city’s Native community can reap some benefit from the sale of the 1,200 acres of boarding school land.
Role of the Office of Tribal Relations
“It is an honor and a challenge to serve during these difficult times,” Thompson said in an interview with the Rapid City 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.”
She explained the work of the Office of Tribal Relations. “As you know the federal government has a nation-to-nation relationship and responsibility with tribal nations. They are not signatories to the Constitution, and so they are not participants in our democracy in the same way that states are. And therefore, the federal agencies need to have some sort of direct line of communication with tribal nations.
“Unfortunately, this Office of Tribal Relations at the USDA had been moved under more of a public participation office, and sort of demoted that government-to-government communication. Under this Secretary, thankfully it’s been moved back and I report directly to the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture,” explained Thompson.
Thompson said the Biden administration and her boss, Secretary Vilsak, have made their priorities clear; economic recovery, addressing and ending the pandemic, climate change and racial equity. “And frankly, you’re not going to find anywhere in the United States where those four issues converge more than in Indian Country,” she said.
Rural economies and the pandemic
USDA programs cover electric energy, telecom, broadband, water, water infrastructure, farming and agriculture and much more. Thompson explained that most of South Dakota falls under the definition of rural.
Says Thompson, “Their definition of rural at USDA is under 50,000 in a town. So that’s pretty much everywhere in our state other than Rapid City and Sioux Falls. So, all of our communities, and all of our tribal communities for the most part are eligible for USDA programs and I think there’s a large misperception that it is just for our farmers.”
The office acknowledges that COVID has hit rural communities harder. On her second day in office Thompson had already had two COVID-related meetings to explore how the resources of USDA could be deployed in the pandemic.
“You know, in rural America we are not being addressed as quickly as we need. And in Indian Country, it’s not just urgent — it’s an emergency! I mean we’re losing an entire generation … These are our Googles, they are our encyclopedias. This information doesn’t exist anywhere else other than in their heart and in their minds and it’s irreplaceable.”
Thompson’s view as a Lakota and a South Dakotan fundamentally informs her world view. She says South Dakotans work with the land differently than in other states. “We hunt, we fish, we farm, we ranch. We, better than anybody, understand the importance of maintaining our water sources, maintaining good climate, making sure that the storms are not destroying our crops. And so I think there’s a really good synergy in moving forward in a modern way together to make sure that we can preserve our rural way of life in South Dakota.”