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American Indian farmers and ranchers lobby

WASHINGTON - More than 100 Indian farmers and ranchers from throughout the United States converged on Washington for a hearing in federal court to seek a class action lawsuit against the Department of Agriculture.

The farmers and ranchers from North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma and other states accuse agriculture officials of discrimination by denying or delaying a number of farm and ranch loans and emergency assistance applications by Indians. Many say this often led to unnecessary foreclosures and the seizure of property.

"They always said it was a lack of funding," said George Keepseagle, lead plaintiff in the case. "One year I lost my range unit because of it. I had to sell 380 acres of land just to stay in business. I was even threatened with losing my house. This is something we shouldn't have to go through"

The plaintiffs want to turn their discrimination suit into a class action covering at least 30,000 Indians. The case is similar to a recent suit filed by black farmers in which the federal government agreed to pay $2.2 billion in damages for discrimination by government officials.

"First they tried to annihilate us. Then they put us on reservations. Then they gave us the Farmers Home Administration," said Gene Caddotte, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who ranches near McLaughlin, S.D. "We lost our land to Farmers Home," he told the Associated Press.

Caddotte and more than 700 other Indian farmers are suing, saying white farmers got much better treatment from the Agriculture Department than their Indian neighbors.

"We came together and we all have the same stories," said James Campbell, a Choctaw farmer from Hugo, Okla. "This (discrimination) has been an unspoken policy of USDA."

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, who have also filed similar suits against the Department of Agriculture covering women and Hispanics, said the lawsuit alleges agriculture officials unfairly treated minorities over the past 20 years and then failed to address the findings of a 1995 report which highlighted patterns of discrimination.

At the hearing, attorney Alexander Pires Jr. asked U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant to permit his clients to bring their suit as a larger class action rather than pursuing claims individually. Pires said the suit has grown to include more than 700 individual plaintiffs who share complaints about unfair treatment.

"I was told not to get a loan because the government would foreclose on you," said Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota.

"It seems that they are bent on taking our land. We need to be empowered and treated equally. We are asking for a hand up, not a handout"

During the hearing, attorney Neil Koslowe, with the Justice Department, said each claim should be tried separately, not as a class action since the government maintains each claim is different. Koslowe also said the case involving black farmers is different because the relationship between the federal government and Indians is unique and also involves dealings with the BIA.

Judge Bryant disagreed with Koslowe's argument, saying that ultimately the end point is the same for everyone - a decision by an official of the Department of Agriculture.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman says he has taken numerous steps to improve the treatment of minorities under his watch. He cites the fact he restored the department's Office of Civil Rights, abolished during the Reagan administration. However, plaintiffs say the USDA did not even acknowledge the findings and recommendations of that office when it filed a report on discrimination within the USDA in 1995.

"The department has not had the best track record with regard to civil rights, but since I have taken over I have made the upgrade of our civil rights responsibilities a priority," said Glickman in a phone interview. "The department recently settled a lawsuit filed by black farmers and we have improved outreach and technical assistance. I look forward to the department better serving all small farmers in need."

While some plaintiffs say things have improved recently in the USDA, they think it has only been a result of their efforts through the courts.

George Keepseagle said he believes there is still a long way to go in fully reforming the system and even wonders if that will ever really happen.

"I think as long as there are minorities in this country there is going to be discrimination," Keepseagle said. "But we are confident that we will prevail in this case."