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Tribal relations grow stronger with USDA

WASHINGTON – Late in the year, Native Americans made headway in dealing with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a couple of issues that have long been problematic, including a lawsuit focused on Indian farmer discrimination and a sacred site matter.

A controversial year-long topic of discussion focused on an ongoing lawsuit known as Keepseagle v. Vilsack, which 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 Indian plaintiffs estimates that the alleged discrimination caused the farmers to have been denied about $3 billion in credit, resulting in between $500 million and $1 billion in damages.

Until November, USDA officials had said they could not comment on the decade-old case, nor had they taken action to settle, frustrating many tribal members who have noted past federal agreements with black farmers, along with the Obama administration’s promises to rectify discrimination.

But at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in November, change was in the air, with Secretary Tom Vilsack going so far as to promise to resolve the situation.

In December, a federal judge approved a move for settlement, with both sides asking Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington for 60 days of settlement talks.

A status hearing in the case has been scheduled for Feb. 10.

Another positive development occurred late in the year when the U.S. Forest Service of the department said Nov. 25 that it was withholding snowmaking permits for a northern Arizona ski resort as a way to promote settlement talks in a long-running dispute between American Indian tribes and the resort’s owners.

The permits were delayed despite a Supreme Court decision in June that upheld the Arizona Snowbowl resort’s right to spray man-made snow on San Francisco Peaks.

Native Americans have argued that the snow, which would be made of recycled wastewater, would desecrate the area, considered a sacred site.

The department’s delay has given hope to some Indians that a resolution sans wastewater can be hammered out, although direct talks with the resort have previously failed.