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Wind River nonprofit receives grant to support local Indigenous farmers and ranchers

An open field with gold grass and the foothills of mountains in the background. A small layer of fluffy white clouds sits above the mountains, and the sky is big and blue.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
An open field on the Wind River Reservation, with the foothills of the Wind River Mountains in the background.

The Wind River Development Fund (WRDF) is a Native-led and Native-focused lending institution that helps spur economic development on and around the Wind River Reservation. That means they get loans and capital into the hands of local entrepreneurs, farmers, and ranchers in the area. The nonprofit was awarded a $300,000 grant from the Native American Agriculture Fund (NAFF) to help continue that work.

NAAF was created as a result of a 2018 settlement in the Keepseagle v. Vilsack class-action lawsuit. The litigation was filed in 1999 and stems from allegations of discrimination against Native farmers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture dating back to the early 1980s.

Paul Huberty is an enrolled member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and is the executive director of WRDF. He said most of the grant money will go to getting loans and capital to Native farmers and ranchers – but some will go to a new college scholarship fund to support Indigenous students who want to get into the industry.

“We want to encourage our youth to seriously consider careers in agriculture. It's a really admirable career and it’s really important to the economy here,” he said.

The funding will also go to support a Native Agriculture Resource Day and education event on the Wind River Reservation next year. This is the fourth year the nonprofit has received funding from NAAF and Huberty said the grants are crucial in sustaining agricultural traditions in the community.

“Ranching and farming is a very important aspect of our culture, and it's also a big industry in Wyoming. So, we're really happy to partner with NAAF and be able to bring this capital to the reservation to continue to grow that industry here,” he said.

Marie Mellick is a descendant of the Coeur D’alene Tribe and is the Senior Loan Officer at WRDF. She said it’s often harder for Native farmers and ranchers operating on the reservation or on trust lands to receive loans.

“Banks usually don't want to serve those people, because they don't see that land as viable collateral for lending,” she said. “They do have the land, they do have leases or they own it or their family owns it, but it's not in the right kind of distinction for what banks want to see.”

Mellick added that many people that WRDF works with haven’t been able to get a loan previously despite having what she calls “invisible credit” – like paying rent on time for the last ten years or paying other bills that show that they’re “just like their neighbors.”

“There's a lot of ranchers specifically on the reservation who want to grow their herds or buy land, so they can have something in their name and grow that wealth and equity for their families,” she said.

Having grown up on a small wheat farm in Worley on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho, Mellick’s background in agriculture helps her meet farmers and ranchers where they’re at.

“My favorite part about what we do is just the personal aspect of it,” she said. “We really get to know our borrowers or prospective borrowers on a personal level and that’s great.”

Huberty said the fact that WRDF is a small, locally-rooted nonprofit with board members from the area gives the group a lot of flexibility and familiarity with the people they work with.

“We're not like a big bank,” he said. “We really try to take a close look at what their needs are and how we can create a product or a loan that really meets their needs.”

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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