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USDA on discrimination case: Working on it

WASHINGTON – Dozens of tribal leaders in town for a meeting with President Barack Obama took the opportunity to visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture to discuss some longstanding problems.

The chance to air concerns came courtesy of an invitation from USDA officials to sit down and talk at the department’s headquarters in Washington Nov 4. Secretary Tom Vilsack and many office heads were in attendance to explain their jobs and to listen.

Some issues presented by tribal leaders were general and applied to many tribes, like the need for increased support for broadband Internet access. Other concerns were more specific, such as particular subsistence and agriculture issues facing remote Alaska Native communities.

One controversial 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.

Rob Capriccioso Indian Country Today Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke to tribal leaders during a Nov. 4 listening session at the United States Department of Agriculture’s headquarters in Washington.

An expert report prepared by the 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 the meeting, USDA officials have said they could not comment on the decade-old case, nor had they taken action to settle, frustrating many tribal members who have noted that the Obama administration has promised to rectify discrimination.

Adding to the frustration is the reality that a similar USDA case involving black farmers, known as Pigford, was settled in the late-1990s.

At one point in the meeting, after tribal leaders were invited to raise concerns, Wilbur Dale Wilkinson, a citizen of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation who is a plaintiff in the case, made his way to a microphone.

“Our people are entitled to justice,” he said. “We have been fighting against USDA discrimination in excess of 20 years.”

He pointed out that several plaintiffs have died waiting for action from the USDA. He also noted the Pigford settlement and said a similar action should occur for Natives.

Joe Leonard Jr., the department’s assistant secretary of the Office for Civil Rights, was moved by Wilkinson’s plea, saying, “There’s no way I can’t respond to that.”

Leonard said it isn’t just the civil rights officers who are paying attention, but also many of the leaders at the department who are “seriously looking at all of these issues.”

Earlier in the session, Leonard said Keepseagle had occupied much of his time and that of his superiors.

“I will tell you this. … since the secretary has been here, he has met on Keepseagle more than his two or three predecessors combined.

“And I can tell you that I have met on Keepseagle, I would dare say, bi-weekly.”

After the meeting, Joe Sellers, a lawyer for the Indian plaintiffs, assessed what he had heard.

“I thought that it was appropriate and appreciated that Mr. Leonard awknowledged the importance of this case to the Indian community.

“This conversation should have happened decades ago. Follow-up is going to be critical.”

He also said he told Leonard that his clients would very much like to become partners with the department, rather than adversaries.

“These problems have taken decades to develop, based on systemic problems – it’s going to require combined efforts over a period of time to fix.”

Despite some optimism, Sellers said there has been no talk of settlement directly with the plaintiffs.

He added that after the talk, one of his clients said he was encouraged, but noted it has already been several months since the Obama administration has had a chance to take action.

“I think the USDA is creating high expectations, and if they’re not followed by an appropriate course of action, then they will end up creating more disappointment,” Sellers said.

USDA officials closed the session by thanking tribal leaders and promising to continue consultation on various matters.

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On Nov. 5, at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, Vilsack told tribal leaders that he knew the litigation has been going on for a considerable period of time, and he added that he is committed to resolving it. To date, agency officials had not made that kind of promise.