Big funds for Native American farmers and ranchers on the way

The largest ever philanthropic fund for Indian Country stems from a 1999 class-action lawsuit.


Some overdue support and payback are on the way for Native American farmers and ranchers. A $380 million settlement, issued by a federal judge this April, will create a Native American-run $265 million endowed trust for nonprofit organizations working on Indian lands. It will also pay other money to families who sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for discrimination.

The settlement stems from a 1999 class-action lawsuit, filed by Marilyn and George Keepseagle, ranchers from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. The case claimed the USDA Farm Loan Program illegally discriminated against thousands of Native American farmers and ranchers during the previous two decades, denying them opportunities to receive farm loans, technical assistance and other services routinely offered to white farmers and ranchers. Since many tribal farmers have only partial, or fractionated, shares of parcels due to 20th-century Indian land policies, families often lack land equity and struggle to get loans or credit access for farming — even without facing discriminatory practices. The Obama administration originally settled Keepseagle v. Vilsack in 2010, agreeing to pay $680 million to class action claimants.

Marilyn Keepseagle, left, with Claryca Mandan and Porter Holder, plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit by American Indian farmers, celebrate outside the federal courthouse in Washington in 2010, after claimants were awarded $680 million. Years later, much of the money was unclaimed.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

“It was a strong case and the government knew that,” says Sarah Krakoff, a University of Colorado law professor. “The settlement is very significant and an important recognition by the government of past harmful practices.”

But three years later, a whopping $380 million was still unclaimed. The USDA lacked documentation of original loan applications in cases, while Marilyn Keepseagle and others claimed Indians’ lack of trust in the government likely discouraged individuals from filing claims. The government threatened to reclaim the unused funds, while plaintiffs asked for more money. A judge instead forced the parties to work on a negotiated settlement, which led to the April announcement. Of the remaining $380 million, $77 million will augment initial payouts to farmers and ranchers, and $38 million will go to nonprofits identified by lawyers, with a “fast-track process” now open to applicants. The remaining $265 million for the endowed trust will be administered by tribes and distributed primarily to nonprofits over 20 years; it’s considered the largest ever philanthropic fund for Indian Country.

Ross Racine, executive director of the Montana-based Intertribal Agriculture Council, calls the trust “the fairest and best long-term use of that funding,” despite some plaintiffs’ criticism of the settlement terms and the amount of money going to nonprofits. Racine anticipates the trust will fund new and existing educational programs and credit-access and lending projects on reservations. For instance, the 1993 American Indian Agricultural Resource Management Act established an educational assistance program for Native American students pursuing agricultural and natural-resources careers, but it never received federal dollars. The Keepseagle trust money could finally launch and fund the program, with a nonprofit group as administrator.

Providing financial and other support for individual and family tribal farmers meets a critical need, Racine says. Another high-profile tribal class-action lawsuit, Cobell v. Salazar, which alleged federal mismanagement of Indian land and mineral trust assets and revenue, was settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion. A large portion of that money, $1.9 billion, has been used to establish a Land Buy-Back Program to acquire tribal members’ fractionated land shares and provide money to start a business, farm, or ranch, while also helping to sort out reservations’ complicated land ownership issues. But those sales remove lands from family control to tribal ownership, further blocking farmers from building land equity.

“I don’t see Cobell enabling individuals to buy land. That land is being bought by the government and being returned to the tribes,” Racine says. That’s among the reasons the buyback program is off to a slow start, with many Native Americans opting not to sell their land shares (as detailed in a recent HCN feature by Sierra Crane- Murdoch). The Keepseagle trust and settlement, on the other hand, will enable individuals to hold onto land and give them access to credit and other support to pursue enterprises on their family parcels. “This funding will fill a different niche.”

Joshua Zaffos is an HCN correspondent in Fort Collins, Colorado. Follow him @jzaffos.

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