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Tribal farmers to Obama: Settle USDA discrimination lawsuit

BISMARCK, N.D. – Several tribal members who are suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture based on discriminatory practices toward Native American farmers and ranchers are calling on the Obama administration to settle the litigation immediately.

The lawsuit, now known as Keepseagle v. Vilsack, has been going on for more than 10 years. It 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.

Some say the problems have led to unnecessary foreclosures and seizures of property, which resulted in millions of dollars in damages.

A new expert report prepared by the plaintiffs found that since 1981 Native American farmers and ranchers received only half the loans they were qualified to receive in comparison to other farmers.

Joe Sellers, a lawyer for the tribal members, said the disparity confirms the accounts of thousands of Native Americans who have been the subject of a longstanding pattern of discrimination by the USDA.

He said the plaintiffs have been denied about $3 billion in credit, resulting in nearly $1 billion in damages.

The USDA admitted it failed to treat minority farmers equally over several decades, but it has never agreed to compensate Native Americans for their lost property and income caused by the agency’s discrimination.

“We are very hopeful that the Obama administration is interested in resolving the lawsuit, especially since Obama himself and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack have said they are committed to ending discrimination,” Sellers said. “The time is opportune for Native Americans to become strong partners with the USDA.”

Sellers said the Obama administration hasn’t talked about settlement yet. He said a similar appeal was not made to the Bush administration because the case was not at the same point in the discovery process and a number of times in court Bush administration officials said they weren’t interested in resolving the case.

Current USDA officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Ross Racine, Intertribal Agricultural Council executive director, said his group has helped identify many tribal plaintiffs over the years. He, too, is hopeful for settlement under the Obama administration.

Part of Racine’s hopes stem from a late-1990s lawsuit, known as the Pigford litigation, in which black farmers won a large settlement based on similar claims of discrimination by the USDA.

Since then, 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.

“Indian country has never enjoyed that type of attention or settlement,” Racine said. “It is only right that they rise up and get this case settled in a way that is fast and reasonable.”

Whether the Obama administration will act quickly is still up in the air, he said.

“The administration has said it is time to deal with tribes in a government-to-government relationship – let’s get beyond the rhetoric and get down to business.”

Racine believes, too, that the USDA must take corrective action. He said many bureaucrats involved with discriminatory practices are still at the agency, as are many problematic policies.

To date, several Indian farmers involved in the original lawsuit have passed away.