Pressure mounts for Obama to settle Indian farmer case

WASHINGTON – A group of tribal governments and some of the top Indian affairs lawmakers in the nation have added their voices to a growing chorus asking the Obama administration to rectify a discrimination suit involving the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Indian farmers.

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

An expert report prepared by the plaintiffs estimates that the Indians involved have been denied about $3 billion in credit, resulting in between $500 million and $1 billion in damages.

Based on heightened calls for the Obama administration to settle the case, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., sent a letter requesting clarification to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in late September.

Earlier in the month, the five tribes of North Dakota pressed for a settlement and requested congressional attention.

“While we are not opining on the merits of the case, we are concerned that the department is moving forward with foreclosures without these serious allegations being resolved first,” the lawmakers wrote.

They learned the department in early September took actions involving foreclosures and debt collections that could negatively affect the financial outlooks of Native Americans directly involved in the litigation.

The lawmakers also requested an update from the department on its progress toward alleviating civil rights issues involving Indians.

The National Congress of American Indians has also taken action. A resolution approved Oct. 16 by the organization of tribal governments noted that the lawsuit is based on a similar one filed on behalf of black farmers, called the Pigford case, in which the USDA settled with black farmers who had suffered discrimination involving the department’s loan programs.

Since the case was settled in the late-1990s, black farmers who were not part of the initial case have received financial incentives by way of last year’s farm bill and intense maneuvering by the Congressional Black Caucus.

NCAI leaders said the Pigford case illustrates that a settlement is possible and resolved to support a negotiated settlement of the Keepseagle case “as quickly as possible.”

The NCAI resolution also urged the Obama administration to reinstate a moratorium on foreclosures of Native American farmers and ranchers until the Keepseagle action is resolved.

Without such a moratorium on foreclosures, lawyers for the plaintiffs said large numbers of Native American farmers and ranchers who allege the USDA discriminated against them could lose their land before they have their day in court.

The USDA has never agreed to compensate Native Americans for their lost property and income caused by the agency’s discrimination.

Department officials said they can’t comment on the case because it is ongoing.

Joe Sellers, a lawyer for the tribal citizens, said he is optimistic that the new expressions of support will help bring the case to the attention of President Barack Obama.

“I’m hopeful that the administration is paying attention. Now is the time.

“I would think that this administration and this president in particular would be interested in trying to treat the American Indian people fairly.”

Sellers said Obama officials have not talked about a settlement to date.

Some legal experts believe tribal leaders may bring the case up at a planned Nov. 5 gathering of tribal leaders with Obama in Washington.