Back row L-R Class Counselors David Franz and Christine Webber, Gene Cadotte, Tex Hall, Joe Sellers, George Keepseagle, ND Ag Commissioner Sarah Vogl, Anurag Varma. Front Row L-R Claryca Mandan, Unidentified (framed photo: Luke Crasco), Helen Alkire (framed photo: Basil Alkire), Judy Fredericks (framed photo: Buzz Fredericks), Marilyn Keepseagle.
A class action was lawsuit filed in November 1999 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C., Keepseagle v. Vilsack, (“Keepseagle”) claiming that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) failed to maintain its civil rights office, and failure to accept or investigate claims of civil rights violations made by Native American farmers and ranchers. Hundreds of Native American farmers and ranchers were denied equal opportunity to obtain farm loans that the USDA routinely provides to non-native farmers and ranchers, which, as charged, has caused the Native Americans to lose billions of dollars in credit. Tom Vilsack was appointed by President Barack Obama to the position of Secretary of the USDA in January of 2009. The class representatives in this suit include George Keepseagle, Marilyn Keepseagle, Gene Cadotte, Keith Mandan, Porter Holder, Claryca Mandan, Luke Crasco (deceased), John Fredericks, Jr. (deceased), and Basil Alkire (deceased). The daughter of Basil Alkire, Janet Thomas, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, recounts how her father came to join the group who initiated the discrimination suit. In a phone interview, Thomas recalled how her father came about joining the group of fellow ranchers and farmers in filing suit. “The USDA made my dad feel that he was a poor rancher, poor manager, a bother, and probably a poor investment, which wasn’t true, since he came from a three generations family of ranchers.” Thomas said. “Maybe he didn’t understand the language of finance, but who does, and maybe he didn’t understand the language of loan financing but again who completely understands government programs and how they can change? Dad was trusting, and he trusted until they took it all away.” One of the claims in the lawsuit is that the USDA failed to provide outreach to Native American farmers and ranchers and did not provide them with the technical assistance they needed to prepare applications for loans and loan servicing. The chain of events can be described best by Claryca Mandan. She said, “Because the BIA and Deptartment of Agriculture didn’t want to sit down and discuss the devastating land loss that was happening with the foreclosures, the group made the decision to sue the United States Government.” The group was galvanized by Tex G. Hall, who had been recently elected to Tribal Chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, along with the Chairmen of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River tribes, to assist 46 tribal members to go to Washington D.C. and march. In the Fall of 1999, the group marched in front of the White House, Department of Agriculture and down Pennsylvania Ave., with signs. Janet Thomas remembers receiving a phone call from her father where he tried to convince her that he was indeed in Washington D.C., protesting with other tribal members. “He told me that he didn’t know they were going to be marching so much, and that he had worn nice new clothes and brand new boots. He had blisters all over his feet!” recalls Thomas. “Dad felt so strongly about this, he always said, ‘Don’t let them forget.” Basil Alkire passed away on January 4, 2007, almost two years before the discovery process in this case was completed and a trial date was set. In November of 1999 the case was declared a class action law suit. After years of preparation on both sides, discovery was completed and the lawsuit was ready for trial when a Settlement Agreement was reached by both parties. Counsel for the plaintiff class submitted a request to the Court for preliminary approval of the Settlement on October 22, 2010, which was granted by the court. Also approved was the plan for issuing notice to potential class member. A final fairness hearing where the Court was to decide whether or not to approve the settlement act took place on April 28, 2011, which resulted in approval of the Settlement, leading to the June 29, 2011 Claims Packages mailing to all potential Claimants. The deadline to return those claims submissions is December 27, 2011. “To realize that we are at this point is amazing to me,” said Thomas. “For thirteen years, people have not understood what has been going on. Other races, Blacks, Hispanics and even women ranchers have won their discrimination suits against the USDA. The fact that it is happening to Native people is sad and we didn’t even know it was happening to us.” Pigford v. Vilsack (Pigford I) and In re Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation (Pigford II) was the Black Farmers discrimination case against the USDA. Love v. Vilsack was the Women Farmers Case, and Garcia v. Vilsack was the Hispanic Farmers Case. Thomas’s focus now has been on informing the potential claimants in this lawsuit. The deadline to file a claim is Dec. 27, 2011. The Class includes all Native American farmers and ranchers who farmed or ranched or attempted to farm or ranch between January 1, 1981 and November 24, 1999 and who sought, or attempted to seek, a farm loan from the USDA during that period; and complained about discrimination to the USDA orally or in writing on their own or through a representative. Members of the Class who are excluded include those who experienced discrimination only between January 1 and November 23, 1997, or who complained of discrimination only between July 1 and November 23, 1997. Class members who are able to prove their claim are eligible for a payment of up to $50,000 or more and forgiveness of some or all of their outstanding USDA loans if you applied for or attempted to apply for a farm loan or loan servicing from the USDA between January 1, 1981 and November 24, 1999. The USDA has also agreed to make some changes to its farm loan programs to help make sure that these programs meet the needs of Native American farmers and ranchers. (Contact Karin Eagle Baca at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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