By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
A lawsuit filed in 1999 alleging discrimination by the USDA towards American Indian farmers has been settled. Marilyn and George Keepseagle, a married couple on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation filed the class action suit 11 years ago.
Keepseagle v. Vilsack was settled on Tuesday, Oct. 19 to the tune of $760 million. The settlement ends a class action lawsuit alleging that American Indian farmers were denied access to low-interest loan rates from the USDA.
A new federal advisory committee, known as the Native American Farmer and Rancher Council, was also created out of the settlement. Comprised of 15 members, 11 of which will be American Indians or those representing their interests, the committee is set to start early next year.
“I applaud (Agriculture) Secretary Vilsack and Attorney General Holder for their hard work to reach this settlement – a settlement that helps strengthen the nation to nation relationship and underscores the federal government’s commitment to treat all citizens fairly,” President Barack Obama said in a statement on Tuesday, Oct. 19. “In light of that commitment, Congress must also act to implement the historic settlements of the Pigford II lawsuit, brought by African American farmers, and the Cobell lawsuit, brought by Native Americans over the management of Indian trust accounts and resources.”
Vilsack said in a statement, “Today’s settlement can never undo wrongs that Native Americans may have experienced in 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 alleging discrimination.”
According to information from the USDA, the Department “will pay $680 million in damages to thousands of Native American farmers and ranchers and forgive up to $80 million worth of outstanding farm loan debt.”
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a statement, “This settlement provides long awaited justice for American Indian farmers and ranchers who have only sought an equal opportunity to work hard and succeed. We are pleased that the court and the Obama Administration have taken tangible steps today to right a wrong and reinforce the trust relationship between the United States and the American Indian tribal nations.”
According to a damages fact sheet for the settlement, “The Plaintiffs negotiated the payment of $680 million in damages by relying heavily upon the expert analysis of Patrick O’Brien, an independent agricultural economist who was employed by the USDA’s Economic Research Service for 27 years. In an expert report filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Mr. O’Brien estimated that Native Americans suffered economic losses of $776 million during the period from 1981 to 2007 that could be attributed to discrimination by the USDA.”
Joseph M. Sellers, a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, PLLC, was the attorney for the lead plaintiffs in the case. “This settlement marks a major turning point in the important relationship between Native Americans, our Nation’s first farmers and ranchers, and the USDA. After three decades, Native American farmers and ranchers will receive the justice they deserve, and the USDA has committed to improving the farm loan system in ways that will aid Native Americans for generations to come.”
According to the settlement damages fact sheet, Keepseagle class members can file a claim under two separate tracks. Track A provides damages up to $50,000 and is for American Indian farmers who were denied loans between 1981 -1999 by the USDA. Track B provides damages up to $250,000 and is for those American Indian farmers who wish to provide proof of actual economic losses and “provide substantially more evidence about the discrimination they suffered.”