Press Release

Release Date: October 12, 2023
by Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Office

Janie Hipp transitions from USDA general counsel to role closer to family

“I’m honored beyond belief that the first Native woman sitting in this chair was someone from the Chickasaw Nation.” – Janie Hipp

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Trailblazing Chickasaw agriculture attorney Janie Simms Hipp has departed her role as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to accept a position closer to family.

Ms. Hipp is the first enrolled member of a First American tribe to serve as USDA general counsel, and the fourth woman to serve since 1905. She was nominated for the position by U.S. President Joe Biden and confirmed in July 2021.

She worked with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, whom she had previously worked with at the agency during the Obama administration.

Ms. Hipp said serving as USDA general counsel, which is the senior legal advisor to USDA, has been an honor, as well as a unique opportunity to offer a First American perspective on a wide range of issues.

“The USDA’s reach touches almost every facet of life,” Ms. Hipp said. “USDA has such a portfolio in rural America, including agriculture, forestry, utilities, community facilities, housing, business and economic development. The rural development portfolio means that we show up in rural America in very deep ways, so it's not just about agriculture, it's literally about economic community assistance and viability.”

The USDA consists of 29 agencies and offices with nearly 100,000 employees who serve the American people at more than 4,500 locations across the country and abroad.

Food safety, trade, conservation, agriculture support, land use, rural development funding, feeding programs, regulation of markets, as well as food safety and trade issues are a few of USDA’s programs and services.

“Because the department’s scope is very wide, we do a lot of things not just domestically, but around the globe,” she said.

The general counsel’s office is involved in every aspect of each program, policy, regulatory work and service under USDA’s purview. On a typical weekday, Ms. Hipp had 20 to 25 meetings on her calendar.

“The USDA team of lawyers are involved in every aspect of the department’s functions, they interpret the law as written by Congress and advise the agencies with policymaking or regulatory work, and also defend (the agency) along with the Department of Justice,” Ms. Hipp said.

Serving in the general counsel role created numerous opportunities to give First Americans a voice on many issues, she said.

“To be able to sit in a position that has not historically been held by anyone who is from a tribe, and to be able to look through that lens and have the opportunity to impress upon that whole agriculture and rural sector that we (First Americans) are here, we have an important voice, and we need to be heard. That’s never left me the whole time I've been here.”

For example, a meeting may not have been about tribal issues, but she could interject an example, something from her own experience, that maybe had not been mainstream thought, she explained.

“I've been in so many conversations at that level. People have come up to me afterward and said, ‘I never thought about it from that perspective, that has really helped me make a better decision.’”

She also drew upon her experience growing up in Idabel, Oklahoma, and her nearly 40 years in agriculture law. During one discussion she verified the need for the “last mile” of high-speed internet connectivity in rural areas by describing a recent trip to her hometown and the necessity “to sit by the window to get one bar” of internet service.

Ms. Hipp described the role as general counsel as an “incredibly important honor and a huge responsibility with worldwide impact.

“You must wake up every morning and be prepared to accept that honor but understand that your job is not to just look at Native issues. Your job is to care about everyone.”

She is also in another elite group – only four women have served in the general counsel role since 1905.

“Early in my career there were just a handful of women lawyers in agriculture and that is equally important to me, because women have very strong reasons to keep using their voices in agriculture. If you look through history, women have always played a huge role in food and feeding people, in maintaining fields and raising livestock.

“Women have more and more visibility in agriculture sectors around the globe and I love that because our voices are so important in food and feeding people and agriculture production and commercial issues, because we do bring additional aspects to the table,” she said.

As much as she has cherished serving as general counsel, Ms. Hipp resigned in late July to accept a position leading a new agricultural financing initiative with national scope.
Remaining in the agriculture sector, she now serves as the CEO and president of Native Agriculture Financial Services (NAFS). The organization was created as a new organization focused solely on lending and support for access to capital by the Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF). Ms. Hipp will lead the financial service organization dedicated to First American farmers and ranchers with specialized lending to individuals and tribal agriculture business ventures.
NAAF provides grants to eligible organizations for business assistance, agricultural education, technical support and advocacy services to support Native farmers and ranchers.
The NAAF charitable trust was created by the settlement of the landmark Keepseagle v. Vilsack class-action lawsuit. NAAF is the largest philanthropic organization devoted solely to serving the First American farming and ranching community.

She began her new role July 31.  

“I’m very excited to return to my roots in agriculture lending, while also getting closer to home and to the Chickasaw Nation,” she said.

David Grahn, who served as USDA principal deputy general counsel as well as interim general counsel until Ms. Hipp was confirmed by Congress, said she brought crucial experience and empathy to the role.
“That not only helped her bring voice and vision to issues involving Indian Country, but it made her a really good advocate for all America in general and even worldwide,” he said.

“She has been, in my opinion, by far the most effective general counsel I have ever had the honor to work for, and it's because she has such a passion and compassion for the work. She brings perspective that our organization desperately needed,” Mr. Grahn, a 30-year veteran of the USDA, said.

“Janie is really special. She was a gift to us at a time when we really needed it. Not only do I believe that, and the staff believes that, but Thomas Vilsack, secretary of agriculture, believes it, because he's told me so,” he said.

Ms. Hipp hopes her barrier-breaking path reminds young Chickasaws not to set limits on their achievements, and anything is possible.

“It was beyond my wildest dreams. I never would see myself in this role but I am thankful that I got to live and breathe it, because it just made me know that I wasn't wrong all these 40 years to be in love with my work,” she said.

She shared a story about a group of young First Americans in her USDA office  in which she advised them to say yes to every opportunity because you have no idea where it might lead.

Ms. Hipp is excited and optimistic about the future of agriculture.

“We (the U.S.) are the global leaders in agriculture. Some folks may not know that, but our farmers and ranchers in Oklahoma and in the Chickasaw Nation know it.”

She is also grateful she had the opportunity to serve with Secretary Vilsack.

“I deeply admire his knowledge, his expertise and his heart for rural people for agriculture and for feeding people. This country should consider itself lucky to have him in this leadership role.”

When Ms. Hipp was confirmed, the USDA was swiftly creating new programs or enhancing existing programs on “hyper drive” to address the fallout of the pandemic.
The urgency to deliver relief created a silver lining, that the government can be more supportive and reflective of what people’s real needs are on a day-to-day basis, she said.

“We are starting now to see what has been set in motion. It makes us realize that we can move quicker, and we can be more responsive,” she said.

She is also thankful for the encouragement she received from Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby.

“It always made me feel like I was on the right path, because of his support and encouragement.”

A Chickasaw flag was proudly displayed in her Washington, D.C. office, and she would always point it out to visitors.

“I'm the oldest person in my immediate family that's still living, and to be representing the greater Chickasaw family that I'm a part of, that actually matters.”

Ms. Hipp is the granddaughter of the late Chickasaw citizen Irene Spencer Simms, an original enrollee. Her father was Thomas Spencer Simms, and her uncle was Barry Simms, who practiced law in Oklahoma for more than 50 years.