VLS Alumni in the News

Alumni Spotlight: Power of the Law

Alicia Nevaquaya MSEL'08: Fuel for the Fire

"I have taken up my farm and food advocacy roles not only as a career choice, but as a traditional cultural role," says Alicia Nevaquaya MSEL'08. As a Choctaw, and as director of the Intertribal Land Trust office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Alicia is dedicated to land conservation and the empowerment of American Indian farmers, ranchers and agriculturalists for personal, professional and cultural reasons.

A typical morning at the office finds Alicia Nevaquaya sitting with her colleagues, coffee in hand, brainstorming the day’s fundraising plans. The workload is formidable: “The projects never end,” she says, but conserving lands and developing businesses in Indian country is “infinitely satisfying.” She is founding director of the new nonprofit whose mission is to conserve land in Indian country. The work brings Alicia to the corner reaches of Oklahoma and throughout the country. One day she's fielding question from Comanche Nation representatives "about conserving and protecting Comanche Chief Quanah Parker’s original house and land that was located on the Fort Sill Army base and the federal and tribal issues that accompany that project." Or, she might be working with tribal representatives to help establish an tribal/national civil war era historical trail. She might also be consulting with other tribes on Monarch conservation on Indian lands ranging from Texas to Minnesota. 

The Alumni Office recently caught up with Alicia to ask her questions about her work.

As an environmental and Indian law specialist, what are the most pressing land tenure issues affecting the Five Civilized Tribes?

The greatest threat to land tenure issues in eastern Oklahoma Indian country has to be fractionalization of Indian lands, dispossession of Indian lands/land title, and the loss of territorial jurisdiction. The term Five Civilized Tribes (affectionately referred to as 5CT) gets its name from early colonial and federal relations with the Tribes (Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and Chickasaw). The tribes almost totally adopted early colonial lifestyles including cotton production and commercial agriculture, Christianity, centralized governments, education and literacy, written constitutions, intermarriage, and even slavery. American Indian tribes have tragic, beautiful, and complex histories with the United States government.

Why is Indian country agriculture a burgeoning issue among Indian tribes?

Indian agriculture has always been an important issue for Tribes. Indian country is primarily rural. On theone hand, agriculture as an economic development tool for Indian tribes can be hugely successful! On the other hand, Indian agriculture is part of native culture. We all know the story of Squanto and how he helped to feed the pilgrims by providing them with farming knowledge. Well, most of the crops that people eat, internationally, on a daily basis are foods that were cultivated in the Americas, prior to European colonization. Whole indigenous cultures and communities were created around the planting seasons, languages evolved with the evolution of the crops, dances and ceremonies were held in honor of green corn, successful buffalo hunts, international trade and commerce, land and territory all relied on Indian agriculture, the ability to feed ourselves and to thrive. As it turns out, indigenous agriculture became important to the rest of the world, too. As the Spanish arrived in the New World, they took crops back to Europe and introduced these crops into Europe and other countries. We can trace indigenous crops’ migration out of the American Southeast, Northeast, Southwest and other places and into Europe where these same crops helped shape cultures of European nations. The tomato is a prime example. What would Italian cuisine be like without the humble tomato that is indigenous to North America, and which is a specific cultivar of Native American peoples? Those crops were introduced in Europe and all over the globe by the Spanish and other colonizers. Crops that are crucial to the American and international economies, like corn, were invented and indigenous knowledge of these crops were shared right here among the Native communities, and eventually shared with European people through colonization. So, in that sense, Indigenous agriculture isn’t just important to indigenous people, but to the world.

Indigenous farmers and ranchers still have a strong foothold on farming techniques, but for many generations, American Indian people have been prevented from growing their own fruits and vegetables and using their own lands, via federal Indian policy. The issue of Indian agriculture is burgeoning at the moment, because there is a growing awareness that indigenous survival depends on our culture and economic development – concepts that have been important to us as native people in the past. Indigenous foods, land and territorial dominion, water, and food, and survival all go hand in hand. For us, indigenous food is the fuel that fires our great circle of life. We pray for it, we celebrate it, we respect it, we give thanks for it.

How do USDA programs affect production agriculture in Indian country? Can you give an overview of the Keepseagle v. Vilsack settlement, and your involvement therein?

Keepseagle v. Vilsack was a national class action civil rights discrimination lawsuit waged against the USDA by American Indian plaintiffs who claimed that the USDA discriminated against American Indian farmers and ranchers for equal access to Farm Service Agency programs. Essentially, the plainitffs argued that they were prevented from equal access to credit and farm loans as other people. Though the USDA never admitted guilt, they settled the lawsuit with the Keepseagle plainitffs in 2010 for $760,000,000. I worked as a claims representative for Indian farmers and ranchers on the ground in eastern Oklahoma who claimed that they were harmed by certain USDA county actions. In all, we found about 5,000 Indian farmers and ranchers nationally who had been harmed by USDA actions (or in some case inaction). Today, my work involves being a farm and food advocate providing advice and technical assistance to American Indian, farmers and ranchers in Oklahoma and sometimes nationally. I think it is important to help these farmers and ranchers, especially, learn the USDA system, which is huge, and help provide access the appropriate programs at the agency to help their operation thrive.

How does your farm advocacy work overlap with your specialization in Indian law?

It’s all about the land. The land is the primary generator for farming, agriculture, economic development and Indian law. You have to be knowledgeable in all types of land tenure systems, soil science, environmental law issues, as well as agricultural policy to be an effective farm advocate. I tell people that farm and food advocacy is not just about “digging in the dirt”. Agriculture is more than that – it’s also about business development, research, economic development, contracts, marketing, risk management, insurance, policy, energy, the environment, and international trade. I could go on, but at the heart of the matter is working with and knowing about the land you operate on, what your land can do, how it can be improved and developed, and the best and highest use of the land for your business. Both Indian law and farm advocacy deal in issues of land tenure.

How has the MSEL prepared you for the kind of work you do?

I am so grateful to VLS for the opportunity to study environmental law. The coursework and professors are the best in the business. The environmental law courses – from agriculture to energy – are used in my daily work conserving lands and developing businesses in Indian country.

Was there a particular professor or course that stands out as especially memorable or influential during your time at VLS?

Professor Duthu is an expert in Federal Indian Law and a gracious teacher. He helped inform my opinions about the intersection of environmental and Indian law. Professor Firestone’s socratic method and expert knowledge of environmental law scared me pretty badly (in a good way) and challenged me to over prepare for his class.

Alicia Nevaquaya spotlight

Alicia Nevaquaya MSEL'08

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