A decades-long battle to resolve claims that the U.S. Department of Agriculture systematically discriminated against Native American farmers and ranchers has come to an end with the establishment of a trust that will distribute $266 million from a 2010 civil rights settlement in which the U.S. government agreed to pay $680 million in damages for nearly twenty years of systematic discrimination in the awarding of farm loans.
The Native American Agriculture Fund, the largest U.S. philanthropy focused exclusively on Native American farmers and ranchers, will redistribute funds left over from the class-action settlement after only about thirty-six hundred successful claims — instead of the ten thousand anticipated — were filed, leaving $380 million undisbursed. In 2014, the plaintiff's lawyers proposed that a foundation headed by Native leaders be established to re-grant the remaining $380 million instead of distributing it equally among Native American nonprofit organizations, as called for in the original settlement. In 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan approved an agreement to distribute an additional $76 million in cash and tax payments to the original claimants, award $38 million to nonprofit groups chosen by the plaintiffs' lawyers, and endow the trust with the remaining $265 million.
The new fund had been in limbo for the last two years, pending the resolution of appeals; in March, however, the Supreme Court decided not to hear the appeal. After the district court gave its final approval in late July, the fund's board held its first meeting, and funds will now be disbursed over the next twenty years to nonprofits and tribal government agencies at the board's discretion. The recipients of the $38 million in immediate grants — nonprofits or tribal government agencies that had provided, prior to November 1, 2010, business assistance, agricultural education, technical support, or advocacy services to Native American farmers or ranchers to support and promote their continued engagement in agriculture — had been submitted to the district court in 2016 and were given final approval in July. A large number of the awards will support infrastructure or equipment purchases — ranging from irrigation projects, to the purchase of large farm equipment, to the construction of facilities needed to link producers to markets — while others will underwrite the cost of technical assistance or training.
"The modification to the settlement agreement struck a sound balance between distributing some of the funds to those who had been successful claimants before and other funds to serve the broader Indian farming and ranching community," said Joseph M. Sellers, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. "In many ways, the creation of the Native American Agriculture Fund trust could turn out to be one of the most lasting legacies of this case because it will create the largest nonprofit institution to serve Native Americans in the history of this country. We look forward to seeing the Native American Agriculture Fund move forward to bring benefits to Indian farmers and ranchers beyond what litigation alone has provided."
"Native American agriculture is at an important moment for investing in meeting the needs of our agriculture producers," said Janie Hipp, executive director of the Native American Agriculture Fund. "Combining such investments with the continued focus on feeding ourselves will create important new opportunities to solidify our economies, strengthen our communities, and improve our access to healthy foods. Important next steps for the trustees and the director include developing strategies for grantmaking and building a solid administrative office for carrying out the responsibilities of the fund."
Trust chair Elsie Meeks, an Oglala Sioux rancher in South Dakota and the first Native American to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, told the Washington Post that the fund is moving cautiously as it develops its strategy. "All of us having served on foundation boards understand how to go about developing a strategy," she said. "We have a long way to go, but this is a national fund....With some five hundred and sixty Native American tribes, this could be a drop in a bucket — which is why we have to be really smart about how we use this money."
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