In this file photo from 2009, plaintiffs George and Marilyn Keepseagle walk past the house where George grew up in Fort Yates , N.D. The couple headed a class action lawsuit that contends Native American farmers and ranchers lost millions because of loan discrimination by the U.S. Agriculture Department.
American Indian farmers and the U.S. government have reached a $680 million settlement in a long-standing lawsuit over loans that were denied to Native American farmers and ranchers.
The Keepseagle class-action lawsuit, named for plaintiffs George and Marilyn Keepseagle of North Dakota, had sought some $500 million in damages.
The plaintiffs claimed that the U.S. Department of Agriculture unfairly denied loans to American Indian farmers. Lacking credit, many of the farmers were then forced to sell their land — only to watch white farmers successfully attain USDA loans.
The agency has been at odds with several groups of farmers in recent years. In 2006, NPR's David Schaper profiled one Native American farming family's experience with the USDA. And Hispanic farmers are seeking to resolve their own dispute over USDA loans, as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reported a year ago.
The AP reports that U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan was pleased with Tuesday's agreement, calling it "historic" and coming down off his bench to shake hands with lawyers from both sides.
The deal comes after more months of negotiations to settle the lawsuit, which was first filed in 1999. Sullivan set a date of Oct. 29 for a hearing on preliminary approval of the settlement.
The Keepseagle v. Vilsack case is similar to one the U.S. settled a similar lawsuit filed by black farmers more than a decade ago. But disbursements in that case, Pigford v. Glickman, have been slow to come. Farmers from the National Black Farmers Association expressed their frustration in an interview with NPR in July.
Part of the delay in that case, as an article on the site Law.com explains, is that Congress must appropriate funds to pay the settlement. The Keepseagle settlement reportedly doesn't face a similar hurdle.