Native American farmers settle with USDA for $760 million

A 12-foot-high statue, "The Buffalo Dancer," is placed at the National Museum of the American Indian as part of a celebration of the 5th anniversary of its opening and the 20th anniversary of its founding legislation.
By Spencer S. Hsu and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 5:17 PM

The Obama administration announced a $760 million settlement Tuesday to resolve charges by thousands of Native American farmers and ranchers who say that for decades the Agriculture Department discriminated against them in loan programs.

The farmers have fought for 11 years and through three administrations to resolve the case.

"The settlement announced today will allow USDA and the Native American farmers involved in the lawsuit to move forward and focus on the future," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.

The roughly 50-page agreement resolves a class-action lawsuit brought in 1999 by nearly 900 people, covering Department of Agriculture actions dating to 1981.

"This settlement marks a major turning point in the important relationship between Native Americans, our nation's first farmers, and the USDA," said lead plaintiffs' attorney Joseph M. Sellers, a partner at the Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll law firm in Washington.

Under the agreement, the department would pay $680 million in damages and forgive $80 million of outstanding farm loan debt.

The federal government also agreed to create a Native American Farmer and Rancher Council to advise USDA, appoint a department ombudsman, provide more technical assistance to Native American borrowers and conduct a systematic review of farm loan program rules - all to improve access to farm aid programs.

Sellers credited the Obama administration with opening the door to talks after taking office and seeing "long-standing . . . and festering" problems in farm programs.

"With the entry of the new administration, we saw a decided change in the attitude of the government to this litigation," Sellers said. "Rather than kicking it down the road, they really seemed open to working with us."

The financial payments will not require approval by Congress but could be paid from a judgment fund maintained by the Justice Department.

"We have been waiting nearly three decades for this day to come," said plaintiff Marilyn Keepseagle, whose name along with that of her husband, George, leads the case. "This settlement will help thousands of Native Americans who are still farming and ranching."

A claims process will be publicized in rural and often remote Native American communities.

"Today's settlement can never undo wrongs that Native Americans may have experienced in past decades, but combined with the actions we at USDA are taking to address such wrongs, the settlement will provide some measure of relief to those alleging discrimination," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "The Obama administration is committed to closing the chapter on an unfortunate civil rights history at USDA and working to ensure our customers and employees are treated justly and equally."

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