Plan Approved to Create $265 Million Fund for Native American Farmers

A federal judge has approved a plan to redistribute $380 million in government funds left over from a landmark federal civil rights suit filed by Native American farmers and ranchers, the Washington Post reports.

Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan approved an agreement reached in December 2015 to distribute the funds remaining from a $680 million settlement reached in 2010 — after only about thirty-six hundred people, instead of the ten thousand anticipated, filed successful claims. Under Sullivan's ruling, the original claimants will receive $21,275 in cash and tax payments — about $77 million in total — in addition to the $50,000 apiece most received initially. Another $38 million will go to nonprofit groups chosen by lawyers who represented those in the class action suit, while the remaining $265 million will endow what is expected to be the largest U.S. philanthropy serving Native American farmers and ranchers. That trust, in turn, will distribute the funds to nonprofits over twenty years. According to the Post, the funds can be spent on business assistance, education, and technical support that promotes Native American farmers and ranchers, while recipients can include new nonprofits as well as certain tribal agencies.

The redistribution of $380 million had been in limbo since 2014, when the plaintiff's lawyers proposed that a foundation headed by Native leaders be established to re-grant the money instead of distributing it equally among Native American nonprofit organizations, as called for in the original settlement. Native American groups, including the lead plaintiffs, split with their lawyers and opposed the plan, saying the money should be distributed to claimants, distributed among existing charities as originally intended, or exposed to a new round of claims. Experts told the Post there were relatively few claimants in part due to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's failure to keep records of loan applicants who had been denied loans because they were Native American (making them eligible to participate in the settlement), a history of skepticism about federal promises, and the difficulty in reaching potential claimants in remote areas. Opponents of the newly created fund included those whose claims had been denied or who had never filed.

In a statement, lawyers for lead plaintiff Marilyn Keepseagle, a North Dakota Sioux rancher, said they were pleased with the decision. "Faced with limited realistic choices, we believe it was the best option available to favorably resolve this suit and provide additional direct relief to the class members." Plaintiffs Marshall L. Matz and John G. Dillard concurred and applauded the decision to entrust the distribution of the funds to "Native American leaders who understand the unique challenges of Indian agriculture."