Gov’t Announces $760M Settlement For Native American Farmers

The departments of Agriculture and Justice yesterday announced a $780 million settlement for Native American farmers who were discriminated against by the USDA in the 1980s and 90s, ending more than a decade of litigation.

If the settlement is approved by a federal court, as expected, an untold number of Native American farmers who were denied loans and other assistance by the USDA will be able to apply for restitution, between $50,000 and $250,000 each — a total of $680 million. The settlement will also offer up to $80 million in debt forgiveness for eligible farmers.The money will come from the Judgment Fund, a fund created by the DOJ and the Treasury to pay out settlements against the government.

Paying out of the Judgment Fund will allow the agencies to bypass Congress entirely.

That will likely prove a boon to those seeking restitution. A similar settlement for African-American farmers not scheduled to be paid through the fund has been stalled in Congress for months. That settlement, called Pigford II, would provide restitution for black farmers to the tune of $1.25 billion. Several attempts to pass the appropriation, by attaching it to other bills and calling for unanimous consent, have failed. The same has happened with the Cobell settlement, which would provide money for Native Americans whose land trusts were mishandled by the government.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and assistant Attorney General Tony West told reporters today that they hoped their announcement would provide a much-needed kick to get Pigford II and Cobell through Congress.

“We’re hoping the momentum created by this will encourage people to act on Pigford,” West said.

President Obama, in a statement, also urged the Senate to pass Pigford and Cobell.

“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. My Administration also continues to work towards a resolution of the claims made by women and Hispanic farmers against the USDA,” Obama said.

He also applauded the settlement, saying it’s an “important step forward in remedying USDA’s unfortunate civil rights history.”

The settlement, known as Keepseagle, stems from Marilyn Keepseagle et al., v. Vilsack, a class action lawsuit which was filed in 1999. Lawyers for the farmers had estimated between $500 million and $1 billion in damages, resulting from some $3 billion in denied credit, according to Indian Country Today, which has been closely following the case.