Native and African-American Farmers Finally Get Their Due
By R. M. Arrieta
In These Times
November 25, 2010
Long-awaited settlements and payouts lauded, but some
losses can't be repaid
Black and Native American farmers have finally secured
victory in a major civil rights battle that has lasted
Last Friday, the Senate agreed to settle and payout $4.5
billion over claims of discrimination in lending
practices, government mismanagement and access to the
U.S. subsidy program for farmers.
For Native American farmers, the settlement was a long
time coming. For African-American farmers, the
settlement had actually been reached in 1999 (the
Pigford II case) but it took until now for lawmakers to
approve the funds and begin a process to payout the
The bill related to the Pigford II case came to the
Senate floor ten times before it was finally approved.
"Black farmers have died at the plow, you know, waiting
for this justice to happen," John Boyd, president of the
National Black Farmers Association told NPR.
Eleven years ago on Thanksgiving eve, a group of Native
American farmers and ranchers filed a class action
lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture
(Marilyn Keepseagle et al. v. Vilsack).
Plaintiffs Marilyn and George Keepseagle are Native
American ranchers and residents of the Ft. Yates, N.D.
They were members of the Sioux Nation on Standing Rock
Their suit alleged that the group was denied the same
opportunities as white farmers to obtain low interest
loans from the USDA. Congress mandates that the USDA is
the "lender of last resort" for family farmers who can't
get credit from commercial banks. But Native farmers
couldn't get loans.
Last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and
Attorney General Eric Holder announced a settlement had
been reached. Under the settlement, $3.4 billion will be
made available to eligible class members to compensate
them for their discrimination claims.
"This settlement marks a major turning point in the
important relationship between Native Americans, our
Nation's first farmers and ranchers, and the USDA," lead
attorney Joseph M. Sellars said.
But not everyone agrees.
"The telling will be in the next phase of the
settlement," Clayton Brascoupe, program director of
Traditional Native American Farmers Association, told In
These Times. "There is a process. They (the federal
government) can draw that process out as long as they
want. Farmers and ranchers are still going to bear the
burden of proof."
For the family of Luke Crasco, 66, of the Ft. Belknap
nation in Montana, the victory is bittersweet. Crasco,
one of the original plaintiffs, lived long enough to
learn that the case had been settled and heard about it
from his hospital bed.
As The Billings Gazette reported, Crasco lay in the
hospital bed while his family read news of the
settlement to him. "His eyes popped open and his
eyebrows raised," his widow Irene told the Gazette. "He
knew he had won."
Crasco stated in his lawsuit that officials told him,
"Why don't you Indians just go back to Ft. Belknap and
borrow money there? That's where you belong. You Indians
are always getting things for free."
Loss is about more than money
In addition to the monetary award, the agreement
provides up to $80 million in debt forgiveness to
successful claimants with outstanding USDA Farm Loan
Included is a moratorium on foreclosures on most of the
claimant's farms until they have gone through the claims
processor or until the Secretary of Agriculture has been
informed that the claim was denied.
It also includes broad relief for the farmers through
Said Senator Harry Reid in a statement according to The
Hill, "I am hearted that Democrats and Republicans were
able to come together to deliver the settlement that
these men and women deserve for the discrimination and
mismanagement they faced in the past."
A report prepared by a former USDA economist states that
Native Americans suffered actual economic losses
amounting to $776 million between 1981 and 2007 as a
result of receiving less than their fair share of credit
opportunities from the USDA, according to Farm And Ranch
But the Native Americans farmers lost more than just
money. The farm represents more than just the agric-
business," Brascoupe said.
It incorporates the cultural part too - things being
grown are the things necessary to continue to
function as a culture. Specific types of crops to
continue a lot of the ceremonies, different types of
corn, each one with a specific function or use.
A lot of communities still grow tobacco that is used
for ceremony, the more ancient varieties. Even when
communities have feasts, a lot of the foods served
you can only get from those fields. You can't buy
them at the grocery store. That's a part of it.
Most of the farmers were looking for the capital to use
for purchasing equipment such as tractors, hay mowers,
irrigation equipment, livestock, says Brascoupe. "if you
don't have access to that type of capital either your
farm may fold or stay stagnant and then fold."
"If your father or grandfather is farming and needs
input of capital to make it flourish and to pass this
legacy on to their children or grandchildren and it
languishes and doesn't get transferred, the younger
generation finds something else to do.That, to me,
disrupts a cultural pattern."
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