Native American farmers and ranchers will meet today (Nov. 22) in Bismarck, North Dakota, to discuss settlement in an eleven-year old lawsuit. The Indian farmers claimed that the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against them over several decades.
American Indian farmers are advised to “be patient.”
Even as the U.S. Senate voted Friday to pay settlements in two large lawsuits — one involving black farmers who suffered discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and another involving a mismanaged trust of Native American assets — Indian farmers are still waiting.
The case that still demands patience is styled Keepseagle v. Vilsack. The lawsuit was brought by Native American farmers and ranchers, including Marilyn and George Keepseagle of Fort Yates, North Dakota. The Keepseagles and others claim that the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against Indians by denying them equal access to credit in the USDA Farm Credit Program. The case was was filed in 1999.
USDA officials and lawsuit plaintiffs reached a settlement in October of this year in the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. Now, Indian plaintiffs must wait until the court holds a “final fairness hearing” to decide whether or not to approve the settlement.
The hearing date is April 28, 2011. Then, according to a website tracking the case, “Payments will not be made until after the Court grants final approval to the Settlement and after all Claims Packages are reviewed. This cannot happen until after December 24, 2011. Please be patient.”
Talk about a boatload of patience.
Under the agreement, $680 million will be made available to class members to compensate them for their discrimination claims. In order to quality, Indian farmers must provide substantial evidence of discrimination by the USDA.
The agreement will also provide up to $80 million in debt forgiveness, a moratorium on foreclosures of most claimants’ farms and a moratorium on accelerations and administrative offsets of class members’ farm loan accounts. The U. S. has a pool of 55,899 Indian farmers and ranchers, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census. Until claims are made, it is unclear how many farmers will be eligible for compensation in the settlement.
According to the USDA, the settlement also includes the creation of a new Federal Advisory Council for Indian farmers and ranchers. The council will include representation from Indians around the country as well as USDA officials. An ombudsman position will be created to address farm program issues relating to Indian farmers. The USDA will also offer Indian farmers financial and technical assistance.
Jefferson Keel, president of NCAI, the National Congress of American Indians, praised news of the settlement. “This settlement provides long awaited justice for American Indian farmers and ranchers who have only sought an equal opportunity to work hard and succeed,” Keel said.
One of the original plaintiffs in the case, Luke Crasco 66, a member of the Fort Belknap tribe in Montana, passed away shortly after learning that the case had been settled, according to the Billings Gazette. Crasco lay dying in a Montana hospital when his family read news of the settlement to him.
“His eyes popped open and his eyebrows raised,” said Crasco’s widow, Irene. “He knew he had won.”
The Bismarck Tribune goes on to tell Crasco’s story as detailed in the original lawsuit. Crasco ranched about 1,000 acres in Zortman, Montana. When he approached USDA lending officials, Crasco said he was met with repeated discrimination.
According to Crasco, USDA officials would tell him, “Why don’t you Indians just go back to Ft. Belknap and borrow money there? That’s where you belong. You Indians are always getting things for free.”
Crasco reported that he was denied loans and falsely told that money for loan programs had run out.
Crasco ended up with a huge debt, according to his wife. The government took offsets from his Social Security benefits and pension to pay his debts.
“It was pretty frustrating. We ended up having to sell all our cows,” said Irene Crasco.
President Obama praised the settlement. In a press release, the President said that with the Keepseagle settlement, “We take an important step forward in remedying USDA’s unfortunate civil rights history.”
The President said the settlement in the Keepseagle case showed a commitment to righting old wrongs. In particular, President Obama continued, “Congress must also act to implement the historic settlements of the Pigford II lawsuit, brought by African American farmers, and the Cobell lawsuit, brought by Native Americans over the management of Indian trust accounts and resources. My administration also continues to work towards a resolution of the claims made by women and Hispanic farmers against the USDA.”
Part of that promise was fulfilled Friday, when the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to fund the settlements in the Pigford and Cobell cases. Since the House has twice before voted in favor of these settlements, these two cases are essentially over.
Not so for Indian farmers and ranchers. According to the Bismarck Tribune, an informational meeting for Indian ranchers and farmers is planned at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D. today (Nov. 22). Lead plaintiffs and their legal team in the lawsuit will conduct the meeting.
In the meantime, $2 million has been set aside in the settlement agreement to get the word out to the Indian community with a four-month advertising campaign.