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Native farmers eagerly watch Obama African-American deal

WASHINGTON – Native American litigants in a long-running case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture are hoping the nation’s first farmers won’t be the last to see resolution by the Obama administration on discrimination claims.

In February, a class of black farmers in what’s known as the Pigford case reached a second settlement in a discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. government. If Congress can appropriate the funds, they are set to receive $1.25 billion on top of $1 billion previously paid to black farmers who filed timely claims.

Native American farmers have had similar claims in court since 1999, but the Obama administration has been slower to settle, and no previous agreements have occurred for Indian plaintiffs under past presidents.

The case, known as Keepseagle v. Vilsack, involves hundreds of tribal plaintiffs from several states who argue that agriculture officials denied or delayed a number of farm and ranch loans and emergency assistance applications by Indians.

An expert report prepared by Indian plaintiffs estimates the alleged discrimination caused the farmers to be denied about $3 billion in credit, resulting in between $500 million and $1 billion in damages.

At the White House Tribal Nations Conference in November, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack promised to resolve the situation. At a February Agriculture Subcommittee hearing, he again noted the Keepseagle case, expressing a few thoughts on the settlement.

“There are numbers being discussed,” Vilsack testified, although he said there was a wide gap between the parties on a settlement figure.

Indian plaintiffs agreed in December to a stay of their litigation as settlement talks progressed. They then agreed to an extension in February, which puts the new deadline at April 12.

Joseph Sellers, the lead lawyer for the Indian plaintiffs, said the Obama administration’s settlement of the second Pigford claims is “another encouraging indication that they should be prepared to resolve the Keepseagle case on comparable terms,” yet he noted the longer it takes, the more doubts tend to pop up for plaintiffs.

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Sellers has “every reason to believe suffering by Native Americans is comparable to the suffering of African-Americans.”

Claryca Mandan, a citizen of the Three Affiliated Tribes who is a class representative, said she, too, is encouraged, but she noted that hope is sometimes difficult to maintain since the case has been ongoing since the late-1990s, and many Indian farmers had complaints for decades before that.

“It’s been a very long, long process, and several of our plaintiffs, including two main ones, have passed away.”

To date, more than 80 depositions have been taken in the case, and thousands of documents have been filed.

Indian plaintiffs don’t anticipate that the large amount of money required to settle should be a hold up, since parameters of the case allow it to be settled without Congress needing to approve it or appropriate more funds. Instead, a settlement could be paid under a judgment fund overseen by the Department of Justice, which is meant for use by federal agencies for these types of settlements.

“Native Americans are just looking for parity,” Mandan said. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

Sellers said his clients have expressed no desire to continue providing extensions for negotiation talks past mid-April if serious progress isn’t made by then.

“I think our clients feel that we’ve already waited a long time for a resolution of this case. Many wish there had been a more robust Keepseagle discussion concurrently as the second Pigford settlement.”

As to why black farmers have done so well in comparison to Indian farmers, Mandan noted that there is generally more political support from the Congressional Black Caucus on the matter.