WASHINGTON – The government is offering American Indian farmers who say they were denied farm loans a $680 million settlement.
The two sides agreed on the deal after more than 10 months of negotiations. The government and the Indian plaintiffs met in federal court Tuesday to present the settlement to U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan.
The agreement also includes $80 million in farm debt forgiveness for the Indian plaintiffs and a series of initiatives to try and alleviate racism against American Indians and other minorities in rural farm loan offices. Individuals who can prove discrimination could receive up to $250,000.
A hearing on preliminary approval of the deal is set for Oct. 29. Sullivan indicated he was pleased with the agreement, calling it historic and coming down off his bench to shake hands with lawyers from both sides.
Assistant Attorney General Tony West and Joseph Sellers, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, both said they were encouraged by the judge's positive reaction.
"Based on the court's comments, we're optimistic," West said after the hearing adjourned.
The lawsuit filed in 1999 contends Indian farmers and ranchers lost hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades because they were denied USDA loans that instead went to their white neighbors. The government settled a similar lawsuit filed by black farmers more than a decade ago.
Unlike a second round of the black farmers suit that is now pending in Congress, the American Indian money would not need legislative action to be awarded.
The Obama administration has said settling the American Indian case is a priority. Hispanics and women farmers also have pending cases.
"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 who have been discriminated against," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
Claryca Mandan of North Dakota's Three Affiliated Tribes, a plaintiff in the case, stopped ranching after she and her husband were denied loans in the early 1980s. She said she was pleased with the settlement.
"This is a culmination of 30 years of struggle," she said.