USDA Awards Native Americans Millions In Discrimination Suit

The United States Department of Agriculture has agreed to pay $680 million in damages to thousands of Native American farmers who say they were denied farm loans. The agreement also includes $80 million in farm debt forgiveness for the Indian plaintiffs, as part of the historic settlement of the class action law suit. Host Michel Martin speaks with South Dakota Native American farmer and lead plaintiff Marilynn Keepseagle, and Joseph Sellers, attorney for the lead plaintiffs.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We go next to a case that has Native American farmers celebrating. After a decade of wrangling over a class action lawsuit claiming discrimination by the federal government, a settlement with the Agriculture Department has announced it's worth $760 million. The lawsuit claimed that since 1981, Native American farmers were denied access to low interest government loans that white farmers were provided.

The settlement is just the latest effort to put to rest a string of class action discrimination lawsuits brought against the Agricultural Department in past decades. Perhaps the best known is the suit brought by black farmers. The department has agreed to pay more than a billion dollars to black farmers, and is responding to similar class action suits from women and Hispanic farmers, and a separate suit from Native Americans over royalty payments on mining profits, as well.

We wanted to talk more about this, so in our Washington, D.C. studio here with us is the lead plaintiff in the case of Keepseagle v. Vilsack. She is Marilynn Keepseagle of the Sioux tribe in North Dakota. And the attorney representing the lead plaintiffs, Joseph Sellers, is also with us. He's a partner at the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers and Toll.

I welcome you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MARILYNN KEEPSEAGLE (Rancher): Thank you.

Mr. JOSEPH SELLERS (Attorney): Hello.

MARTIN: Ms. Keepseagle, it's been an 11-year battle for you. And on Tuesday, President Obama called this an important step forward in remedying USDA's unfortunate civil rights history. And I wanted to ask: When the settlement was announced, I just - if you could just tell us what that felt like.

Ms. KEEPSEAGLE: Well, number one, I thought I was dreaming, at first. But I thought after 10 and a half years or almost 11 years, you know, we've waited, I didn't think anything was going to become of it.

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. KEEPSEAGLE: Yeah.

MARTIN: You'd lost hope, or you just thought it was an uphill battle to begin with?

Ms. KEEPSEAGLE: Well, it was always an uphill battle. I just think we just didn't have a chance.

MARTIN: Mr. Sellers, exactly what does the department commit to?

Mr. SELLERS: The department is committing to providing damages, the payment of damages in the amount of $680 million to Native American farmers and ranchers who can show they've been the subject of discrimination. It's going to relieve debt that's outstanding for Native American farmers, ranchers who have debt right now up to a cap of $80 million. And it's agreed to make very substantial, really, historic changes to the Farm Loan Program system to ensure that it is much more responsive to the needs and cultural features of the Native American community.

MARTIN: What does it mean for individual farmers or ranchers like Ms. Keepseagle and her family?

Mr. SELLERS: Well, it's going to mean that they're going to get, we think, some significant payment in the next year to year and a half. But more importantly, it's going to mean that for them and for their children and grandchildren, that a population which has really been disenfranchised over the last decades and had not felt it's been a full participant in the Farm Loan Program, which is the real - really essential to the economic survival of family farms, that they're going to be full partners in this process.

MARTIN: Ms. Keepseagle, would you tell us the allegation which the department has now agreed to, is that they treated Native American farmers differently than they would have if you were white. And I'm wondering how you came to that idea that that was going on.

Ms. KEEPSEAGLE: We knew that. A lot of times on our way to Bismarck - there's farms all along the way - and I would say, look at these white farmers. I said, they're all driving new tractors. Sometimes there'd be, like, three, four tractors in a field. And I said - and us, I said, you know, we have a good used tractor. That's what FSA would tell us. Well, we'd like a new tractor. Well, you know, I don't know if we can let you have that. But you can get a good used tractor. And so when they did give us our operating expenses, we were paying for, you know, the upkeep of the tractor.

Then their next statement was, you better hold down on your spending. You're spending too much. Well, we can't help it, you know. You said a good used tractor, and that's constantly breaking down. So there's the money.

MARTIN: Interesting. Mr. Sellers, could you pick up the story from here? I'm thinking people listening to this might think it's not unreasonable for a person who's granting you a loan to expect you to be frugal and take certain steps to pay them back. So what was the other evidence in this case that suggested that people were being treated differently based on their ethnicity?

Mr. SELLERS: We found evidence both from the Keepseagles and from many, many other people with whom we spoke that while they were either denied loans on the basis of terms that others who were white farmers and who were applying for loans were granted loans. Or they had loans, as the Keepseagles had, and were seeking to refinance them because they couldn't make the payments and were denied those opportunities or had special conditions imposed on their business operations that their neighbors, who were white, did not have.

So the comparisons were with other farmers and ranchers in the same community, subject to the same weather conditions, subject to the same FSA rules and regulations, but being treated differently. We heard the same stories from people all over the country.

We also heard reports of numbers of statements made which left no doubt in anybody's mind that were attributed to FSA loan officers and other officials, that they had intended to treat Native Americans differently than others.

MARTIN: I just want to jump in just to say, if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about a multimillion-dollar settlement between the U.S. Agriculture Department and Native American farmers to settle a lawsuit dating back to 1999. We're speaking with lead plaintiff Marilynn Keepseagle - she's a rancher with her husband in North Dakota - and the plaintiff's attorney Joseph Sellers.

I wanted to ask you more about those states, because the story that a lot of people will know is the story of the Pigford case, which is the African-American farmers. We've talked to a number of the people involved in that case, you know, a number of times. And they say that, you know, things were specifically said to them.

I mean, there were specific gestures of disrespect. I mean, their applications were torn up in front of them. They were spat upon. They were called demeaning names by, you know, farm agents. And it became pretty clear that they weren't going to get loans, and it was pretty much tied to their race. And I wanted to ask if there were similar clues here that suggested that these farmers were deliberately targeted because of their race or ethnicity.

Mr. SELLERS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Give an example.

Mr. SELLERS: An example would be, you know, you're poor managers of money. You don't know how to manage a business - just a presumption of people because of their race that they don't know how to manage a business. Or you people are all drunks. Or you should go to the BIA to get money. You shouldn't...

MARTIN: The Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Mr. SELLERS: Yes. You should not be coming to the Department of Agriculture. Or go to your tribe. They're the ones who can take of you. You should leave this money for other folks who don't have tribes to help them - things of that sort that we collected as accounts attributed to loan officers in a large number of places around the country.

MARTIN: Did anybody ever say anything like that to you, Ms. Keepseagle?

Ms. KEEPSEAGLE: How they treated us was every time my husband, George, needed to get some money to do repairs, he had to drive, like, 17 miles to the FSA office, get their approval, they would countersign the check. They would have to approve that for every little thing. And then he...

MARTIN: But they didn't do that with the white farmers?

Ms. KEEPSEAGLE: No, because we asked a white farmer and he said, no. We never did have to do that, or I never had to do that, is what he...

MARTIN: So they would micromanage your affairs.

Ms. KEEPSEAGLE: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: And then criticize your decisions and...

Ms. KEEPSEAGLE: Yes. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Interesting. Do you think, Mr. Sellers, that the Department of Agriculture earlier this year agreed to pay black farmers $1.15 billion for discrimination they suffered in the case known as Pigford 2, which was a follow-on case after the original settlement with the black farmers. They're still waiting for Congress to approve the funding. So what assurance do you have that the funding will actually be delivered, despite the fact that this settlement has been agreed to with your clients?

Mr. SELLERS: Well, our case is going to be funded by something called the judgment fund, which is a fund created and administered by the Department of Justice to pay judgments against the United States. And so our - the payment of the damages in our case does not depend on congressional approval in the way that the appropriation would be required for the other case.

MARTIN: But what exactly does the settlement put into place to assure people will be treated fairly based on their own individual track record and efforts, as opposed to people's assumptions about who they are and what they can do?

Mr. SELLERS: There are significant changes. First of all, there's going to be created a new advisory council at the USDA called the Council on Native American Farming and Ranching, which is going to meet regularly with leaders of Native American farmer and ranchers and top officials of the USDA to talk about problems with the delivery of this service. People can raise it with the top officials of the agency and try to make changes. And that's the first thing.

The second thing is the system now is going to be set up so that there will be more reliable information, technical assistance provided, often on tribal lands, rather than having to drive 17 or 50 or 100 miles for Native Americans to get to an FSA office.

MARTIN: Okay. So, Ms. Keepseagle, before we let you go, what will this mean to you to get this settlement from the federal government?

Ms. KEEPSEAGLE: What it means to me, my son and my grandchildren? Well, being that the system is going to be changed, I feel that they're going to have better opportunities than what we had. And not only for them, but for all people in Indian country who want to be farmers and ranchers. So I believe by this great event I think people are going to be able to live a better life.

MARTIN: Marilynn Keepseagle is a Native American farmer from North Dakota. She's the lead plaintiff with her husband in a class action discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was just settled. Joseph Sellers is a partner at the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers and Toll. And he represented these Native American farmers in this case. And they were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. SELLERS: Thank you.

Ms. KEEPSEAGLE: Thank you.

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