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New Native American farm fund to distribute $266 million in landmark civil rights settlement

A ranch in the Boulder Valley of Colorado in 2016.
A ranch in the Boulder Valley of Colorado in 2016. (Thom Bridge/The Independent Record/via AP)

The largest U.S. philanthropy serving Native American farmers and ranchers has been established to distribute $266 million from a landmark 2010 civil rights settlement in which the U.S. government agreed to pay for almost 20 years of official discrimination, court filings show.

The class-action case settled for a total of $680 million, but far fewer people than expected made successful claims to the money, leaving $266 million to be distributed through the new Native American Agriculture Fund.

The fund can spend the money at its discretion over the next 20 years under terms filed with a federal judge in Washington.

If the judge had not approved creation of the trust, all the leftover money would have been distributed in equal shares to nonprofit groups chosen by class attorneys in the lawsuit, an outcome all sides opposed once it became clear that the sum would be vast.

The Native American Agriculture Fund was approved two years ago but was on hold pending the resolution of appeals. The fund’s 14-member board of trustees of native peoples held its first meeting after a court gave its final approval in late July.

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“This is a monumental day for Native American communities nationwide,” lead counsel Joseph M. Sellers of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll said in a statement prepared for release Monday and obtained by The Washington Post. Sellers, who launched the case 19 years ago, added, “Today we bring a landmark legal case, and hopefully with it, a regrettable part of our nation’s history to a close.”

The suit alleged that the Agriculture Department discriminated against Native Americans in loan programs from 1981 to 1999.

The fund may issue grants for business assistance, education and technical support, and recipients may include new nonprofits as well as certain agencies of tribal governments.

Trust Chairwoman Elsie Meeks, a rancher with the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota and the first Native American to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said the fund is moving cautiously as it develops its strategy, starting at an Aug. 22 meeting in Minnesota, knowing that necessities and potential opportunities are great.

“All of us having served on foundation boards understand how to go about developing a strategy,” Meeks said. “We have a long way to go, but this is a national fund. . . . With some 560 Native American tribes, this could be a drop in a bucket — which is why we have to be really smart about how we use this money.”

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One initiative could be to improve Indian Country access to the $260 billion taxpayer-subsidized Farm Credit System by reducing lender risk, she said, in much the way private mortgage insurance helps home borrowers meet down payments required for federally subsidized mortgage loans.

Applicants working reservation land are eligible for fewer and smaller loans because they do not hold title to the land, which remains held in trust by the federal government, Meeks explained.

As the lawsuit wound through the court for years, attorneys for the government and for the farmers and ranchers injured by federal discrimination estimated there were 10,000 people who would be eligible for a payment.

But only 3,600 succeeded in meeting payout terms — and they received about $302 million initially, and an additional $77 million in surplus funding.

That left the large pool of unclaimed money.

Some nonprofits have already been awarded $38 million to use on projects including scholarships and research grants in agriculture, extension programs for 36 tribes, a new national community development bank and new services to assist native farmers with legal and loan paperwork, according to documents obtained by The Post.

Read the list here of the nonprofits awarded the $38 million for projects

The Trump administration’s Justice Department successfully asked the U.S. Supreme Court not to take up a challenge to the agreement, which was reached before President Trump took office.

Administration attorneys had asked the trial judge in the case to scrutinize proposed grants to two of the recipients for potential conflicts of interest or the possibility their grants could be used for lobbying or political activities in violation of the deal’s terms.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the District of Columbia agreed to bar Farmers Legal Action Group of St. Paul, Minn., from spending any of its $692,213 grant for drafting legislation.

But Sullivan said class attorneys had “used a comprehensive process to ensure that . . . [recipients] are free from conflicts of interest.”