ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Native American farmers and ranchers want a federal judge to set a trial date for their civil rights lawsuit against the government. The class action lawsuit claims that for decades the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against Native Americans, denying them loans that it routinely gave to whites. The case, which has languished in the courts, mirrors a landmark lawsuit filed by black farmers which was settled in the late 1990s.
NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER: Like his father and grandfather before him, Keith Mandan is a cattle rancher and he's proud of it.
Mr. KEITH MANDAN: When you talk about the way of life, it's kind of our only way of life.
SCHAPER: Keith and his wife Clarissa have about 250 head of cattle on roughly 500 acres of prairie grassland atop the rolling hills of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in the North Dakota Badlands. It's a tough way to earn a living, especially on highlands exposed to the harshest of North Dakota elements. Keith Mandan says when a blizzard blows up, the cattle instinctively head down into a deep wooded ravine.
Mr. MANDAN: Get out of the wind, cattle will go in there. And they're in the storm and they'll hunker down in there. And when the storm is over they'll come out.
SCHAPER: And they have to go there because -
(Soundbite of mooing)
Mrs. CLARISSA MANDAN: That's the only place to go.
SCHAPER: There's no barn.
Mr. MANDAN: There's no barn.
SCHAPER: There's no barn, no machine shed for their tractor and tools. Absent are any of the out buildings that you'd find on most non-Indian ranches here in North Dakota, because Mandan says he'd have to borrow money to build them.
Mr. MANDAN: Talking about credit, there isn't any. There literally isn't any.
SCHAPER: Most farmers and ranchers rely on government loans, especially after suffering through a drought, flood or blizzard. But the Mandans say Indian ranchers have been routinely denied USDA loans, and for the few operating loans they have received, Clarissa says the USDA refuses to restructure them, a common practice with farm loans.
Mrs. MANDAN: Our non-Indian neighbors got numerous write downs, some more than once. Some almost every year. These tools were never used on a Native American loan.
SCHAPER: While fighting off foreclosure, the Mandans discovered they are not alone and became two of the lead plaintiffs in a class action discrimination lawsuit against the USDA that was filed in 1999. It's similar to a lawsuit filed two by black farmers that resulted in a record settlement with the USDA. To date, more than 14,000 African American farmers have been awarded close to $1 billion in grants and loan forgiveness.
Attorneys for the Native American plaintiffs say the evidence is similar, some of it coming from the USDA's own report on civil rights abuses in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But while the other lawsuit was quickly settled, the Native Americans' case, known as Keepseagle, has languished in the courts. Attorneys blame the government for employing just about every stalling tactic imaginable.
Despite numerous attempts by NPR, no one from the USDA or Justice Department would agree to talk about the case on tape, though officials deny they've intentionally dragged out the case.
But Vernon Parker, former assistant secretary for civil rights in the agriculture department, acknowledges the federal agency has a troubled past in how it treats minorities.
Mr. VERNON PARKER (Former Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Agriculture Department): I think anyone would not be truthful if they said that discrimination did not occur and that discrimination does not occur and that discrimination will not occur.
SCHAPER: Parker, who stepped down earlier this year, says the problems in a federal bureaucracy he once referred to the last plantation could not be changed overnight. But he says USDA is improving. But neither he nor anyone else contacted for this story in the Justice Department or USDA would discuss why there haven't even been settlement talks with the Native Americans.
Clarissa Mandan believes it's partly because as a race, Native Americans are invisible. A point she says was hammered home by a recent USDA settlement to protect wildlife.
Mrs. MANDAN: And it really made me angry that the United States Department of Agriculture would enter into negotiations with a group of people that were speaking up on behalf of wildlife, but they won't enter into negotiations with a race of people. We don't get the respect that a duck would get.
SCHAPER: The Mandans and other Native Americans hope they'll soon have their day in court. Lawyers for both sides report before a federal magistrate next week to iron out disputes over discovery in the case.
David Schaper, NPR News.
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