Land & Environment

USU Economists Awarded Grants for Economic Change on Native America Reservations

By Madison Leak |

Red rock cliffs near the Navajo Nation and White Mesa Ute reservations in southeastern Utah. (Photo by Matt Morgan, Utah Office of Tourism)

Ruby Ward, a professor of applied economics at Utah State University, and her team have been awarded two program grants to assist residents of Native American reservations in Arizona, Nevada, Utah and South Dakota. Each grant’s aim is to improve the economies of each reservation, one specifically for entrepreneurs in rural areas and the other for small to medium-sized farms. The two competitive grants were awarded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and total $1 million.

Ward, who has more than 20 years of experience as a USU Extension Specialist dealing with educational programming in agribusiness and tribal programs, serves as project director. 

“It’s hard to be a livestock producer or an entrepreneur in the best of conditions, but especially in poverty and with issues like these populations have,” Ward said. “We plan to shed light on the topic and help both livestock producers and entrepreneurs succeed.” 

Due to many laws and regulations enforced by both federal and tribal governments, land is a hard thing to come by on a reservation and land is essential for both livestock producers and entrepreneurs to grow their businesses. 

“This is a problem that we were aware of and now we have the resources to do something about it,” Ward said. 

The Dawes Act of 1887, also known as the Allotment Act, allowed reservation land to be broken into small allotments and parceled out to individuals. The head of a household was granted one-quarter of a section; each single person over age of 18 was granted one-eighth of a section; each orphan child under 18 was granted one-eighth of a section and so on. The purpose of the act was to protect tribal property rights. 

“One section of land can have up to 500 owners because of these individual allotments,” Ward said. “You have to have a certain number of those owners all agree to sign off in order to gain any rights to the land, so you can see how complicated that can become.”

Each project will take three years to complete and will create and use an advisory committee and focus groups for each area.

“When agricultural production on reservations is enhanced it benefits the entire reservation community economically and environmentally,” said Kynda Curtis, professor and Extension economist in USU’s Department of Applied Economics. Curtis serves as co-principal investigator on the small farms grant. 

Another benefit of this grant will be improving diets and food access for community members. 

“We certainly hope that we can provide valuable input that will be implemented on the reservations to improve agriculture and sustainability,” Curtis said.

Professor Ruby Ward directs two new USDA projects assisting residents of Native American reservations in four states.

Professor Kynda Curtis is co-principal investigator in a project to enhance sustainable agricultural production on reservations.


Madison Leak
College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences


Ruby Ward
Department of Applied Economics


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