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USDA policy a gallows

For more than a decade, the federal government's derelict handling of Indian trust funds has been headline news. Now another government trust blunder is surfacing, and this time the victims are Native farmers.

The villains are the BIA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Together, they're using loan discrimination to dispossess Indian farmers and ranchers of their land and turn it over to non-Indian farmers. It's a subtle way of running Indian farmers off the land, hollowing out reservations and flaunting fiduciary trust over Indian assets. Native farmers are crying foul in the courts. USDA is doing what it can to keep the lead case, Wilkinson v. Schafer, from becoming a second Cobell v. Kempthorne.

If USDA succeeds, it will have shamelessly advanced injustice by dismantling current law barring loan discrimination. The law in question is the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. It prohibits discrimination against people seeking small-business loans. Most farmers go to the gallows without loan assistance. But for years USDA has used dual standards in processing loan applications from Indians and non-Indians. In Wilkinson, it required the family to execute BIA forms that assign income from trust property as a precondition to getting and renewing loans. In late June, an administrative law judge, citing ECOA, granted relief to the Wilkinsons and opened the door for other families to be compensated.

USDA is in shock and doing everything in its power to stem a tide of pending compensation. Back in 1999, a class action suit was filed against USDA for two decades of loan discrimination against thousands of Indian farmers and ranchers. USDA sought to divide and conquer. It told a subset with strong evidence of discrimination that settlement required disavowal of the class action, known today as Keepseagle v. Schafer. The recent ruling for damage relief is rekindling interest in reuniting the class action and non-class action plaintiffs. No Indian farmer should be without full relief.

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USDA is desperately stonewalling. It denies any wrongdoing, despite findings of its own Civil Rights Division, the Government Accounting Office and now the legal system. The genie is out of the bottle and not going back. USDA should be putting minority farmers into business rather than the opposite. Abraham Lincoln established the USDA in 1862 as the ''peoples' department'' and Indian people - united in their commitment to land and culture - must stand as one voice in dealing with federal agencies who toy with solemn trust relationships.

- Charles Geisler

Professor, Cornell UniversityIthaca, N.Y.