Indian Farmers Agree To Government Settlement
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The case was in the courts for more than a decade, and now the federal government is settling a major class action discrimination lawsuit with Native American farmers and ranchers.
The deal totals more than $750 million in damages and debt forgiveness. The Native Americans who sued say they were unfairly denied loans and other assistance by the Department of Agriculture because of their race.
NPR's David D reports.
DAVID SCHAPER: Claryca Mandan says from the moment, 31 years ago, that she and her husband Keith tried to start a cattle ranch on the windswept prairie of the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota, they were discriminated against by the USDA.
For two decades, the Mandans say they had loans denied, loans delayed, applications lost, and faced extra hurdles and hoops, while white ranchers just down the road got the same kinds of loans problem-free.
She says she was even once told that her people didn't know how to farm and ranch by a local USDA agent. It's what brought her to Washington, D.C.'s federal courthouse to file this discrimination lawsuit against the USDA 11 years ago - a courthouse she walked out of Wednesday afternoon with victory in hand.
Ms. CLARYCA MANDAN (Farmer): When we came out of the courthouse just now, there was some indelible words printed on that big rock over there, something about the Creator making all of us equal.�And there was a lot of times in the Native community where it was hard for us to believe in those words in our Constitution.
SCHAPER: Mandan�is one of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit known as Keepseagle that alleged discrimination in USDA loan programs dating back to 1981, discrimination that cost many Native American farmers and ranchers their land and their livelihoods - Mandan and her now disabled husband, Keith, among them.
Ms. MANDAN: We didn't get to farm and ranch on our own land like we planned, when we set out to do so when we got married.�One of the nice things, though, is that our children will be able to.
SCHAPER: The plaintiffs in the case praised the Obama administration and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for negotiating a settlement after almost a decade of nothing but stalling tactics and delays. They say some original plaintiffs died while waiting for the case to be resolved.
The settlement calls for $680 million in damage awards to Native American farmers and ranchers. Individuals who can prove discrimination could get up to $250,000 each.
And the settlement includes changes to farm loan programs to prevent discrimination in the future, under terms announced in by Vilsack in an afternoon conference call.
Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): Today's settlement can never undo wrongs that Native Americans may have experienced in the past decades. But combined with the actions we at USDA are taking to address such wrongs, the settlement will provide some measure of�relief to those who have been discriminated against.
SCHAPER: Back outside the federal courthouse, other plaintiffs celebrated their hard-fought victory.
Mr. PORTER HOLDER (Rancher): This is Porter Holder. I'm a member of the Choctaw Tribe in the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.
SCHAPER: The 42-year-old Holder has a 320-acre cattle ranch in Soper in southeast Oklahoma, where he does what he calls long, hot, hard work that he says just got a little easier for the next generation.�
Mr. HOLDER: The doors that this will open up for my kids and my grandkids will be just astronomical.�I mean, this is what we've hoped for for 11 years now. This is a good day.
SCHAPER: The settlement still must be approved by a federal judge overseeing the case.�After an initial review, he called it an historic agreement, and he will likely give that final approval October 29th.
David Schaper, NPR News.
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