U.S. settles Native American farmers' lawsuit for $760M

The Obama administration announced Tuesday a $760 million settlement to resolve longstanding discrimination claims by Native American farmers.

The agreement marks the resolution of a 1999 lawsuit brought by Native American farmers and ranchers who say the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) discriminated against them in federal loan programs dating back to 1981.

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“Today’s settlement can never undo the wrongs that Native Americans may have experienced in the past decades,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on a conference call with reporters. “But combined with the actions USDA is taking to address these wrongs, this settlement will provide some measure of relief for those who have been discriminated against.”

Under the settlement, $680 million will be paid out in damages, and an $80 million fund to forgive farm debts will be established.

The settlement will set up two payment tracks for Native Americans who say they were denied USDA loans and services due to their race.

One will require claimants to be a Native American farmer and provide substantial evidence of discrimination, earning a uniform award of $50,000. The other will have claimants be Native American farmers and provide more evidence of discrimination showing steep economic losses from discrimination, with awards capped at a maximum of $250,000.

The news comes as Capitol Hill has yet to pass a measure to approve funding for a $1.15 billion settlement that would resolve complaints by black farmers, known as Pigford II.

Unlike that agreement, the payments in the Native American farmers’ settlement, known as Keepseagle, will not require congressional approval, according to Obama administration officials.

The Justice Department is still in the process of setting up a claims process. It will soon begin a notice campaign so claimants can apply to resolve their discrimination claims.

Administration officials said they could not estimate the number of claimants yet for the settlement. But unlike Pigford, Keepseagle will not have to wait for Congress to pay out claims since it will draw upon a judgment fund already in place at the Justice Department.

“This settlement comes out of the judgment fund and the judgment fund is established in the Department of Justice and in the Department of Treasury,” Vilsack said. “In a sense, it is not a budgeted item. It is not required to have congressional action. It is available for the United States to settle any claims that may exist.”

Vilsack would not say he has a commitment from congressional leaders to bring up the black farmers’ settlement for another vote in the Senate during the lame-duck session after the mid-term elections. But he did say he hopes news of the Native Americans’ settlement will spur lawmakers into action.

“Our hope is that the announcement of this settlement, Keepseagle, will encourage folks to consider the congressional action necessary to finish the Pigford and Cobell litigation,” Vilsack said.

Cobell is another settlement stemming from a lawsuit against the U.S. government over its handling of Indian land trust accounts and resources.

President Obama praised Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder for reaching the settlement, which he said “helps strengthen the nation to nation relationship and underscores the federal government’s commitment to treat all citizens fairly.”

The president said Congress needs to act to fund the black farmers’ agreement as well as Cobell. 

The Obama administration is also working on resolving discrimination claims made by women and Hispanic farmers against USDA. 

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