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North Dakota tribes urge settlement in Keepseagle case

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BISMARCK, N.D. (UTN) – The five tribes of North Dakota are urging a settlement in the 10-year-old lawsuit by American Indian ranchers against the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Members of the United Tribes of North Dakota passed a resolution supporting a settlement in the Keepseagle case as quickly as possible.

The action was unanimously approved by tribal leaders of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, Spirit Lake Tribe, Standing Rock Tribe, Three Affiliated Tribes and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, at a meeting Sept. 11 in Bismarck.

The resolution calls on the attorney general and USDA to “commence meaningful negotiations toward a settlement” in the case filed Nov. 24, 1999.

The action alleges widespread and systematic discrimination against Native American farmers and ranchers in the government’s agricultural loan programs over the better part of two decades.

The lead plaintiff in the case is George Keepspeagle, a rancher from the Standing Rock Tribe in south-central North Dakota. The case became a class action lawsuit in 2001 on behalf of more than 10,000 American Indians who farmed or ranched between 1981 and 1999 and faced bias and discrimination in USDA loan programs.

Settlement discussions under the Clinton and Bush administrations yielded no results.

According to the plaintiffs, the USDA acknowledged in 1997 that it had failed to provide Native American farmers with the same opportunities to obtain farm loans as it provided to white farmers.

The plaintiffs also say the USDA issued several studies conducted by its Office of Inspector General finding the department had dismantled its system for processing civil rights complaints in the mid-80s.

The United Tribes resolution called on members of the congressional delegations of the states most affected by the case to urge the Obama administration to pursue settlement discussions.

The USDA recently settled a similar lawsuit filed on behalf of black farmers who had suffered discrimination in USDA loan programs.

The resolution also called for a continuation of the moratorium on farm and ranch foreclosures announced earlier this year by new Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The resolution was signed by Myra Pearson, chair of the United Tribes board and chairwoman of the Spirit Lake Tribe, and Marcus Levings, the board’s secretary/treasurer and chairman of Three Affiliated Tribes.