Native American Agriculture Fund begins work with $266 million fund

The Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF) has gotten off the ground now that all final challenges to the Keepseagle settlement over discrimination at the Department of Agriculture have been resolved.

With over $266 million in leftover funds from the historic settlement, the NAAF is already the largest philanthropic organization in Indian Country. The new effort is being overseen by a board of 14 trustees, who hail from tribal communities across the nation:

• Elsie Meeks (Oglala Lakota) – Board member of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board; former State Director, South Dakota Rural Development; rancher

• Claryca Mandan (Three Affiliated Tribes) – Lead plaintiff; Natural Resources Director, MHA; rancher

• Richard Williams (Oglala Lakota) – Consultant; former Director of the American Indian College Fund

• Porter Holder (Choctaw) – Lead plaintiff; Vice Chair, Council on Native American Farming and Ranching; rancher

• Paul Lumley (Yakama) – Executive Director, Native American Youth and Family Center

• Charles Graham (Lumbee) – State Representative, North Carolina General assembly

• Michael Roberts (Tlingit) – President and CEO, First Nations Development Institute

• Sherry Salway Black (Oglala Lakota) – Chairperson, First Peoples Fund; Board Member and Consultant to Johnson Scholarship Foundation

• Pat Gwin (Cherokee) – Sr. Director of Environmental Resources, Cherokee Nation; rancher and expert on Native American heirloom seeds

• Dr. Joe Hiller (Oglala Lakota) – Professor Emeritus, University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

• Jim Laducer (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) – Director and majority shareholder, Turtle Mountain State Bank

• Marilyn Keepseagle (Standing Rock Sioux) – Lead Plaintiff; rancher; recently replaced by Dave Archambault, Sr. (Standing Rock Sioux) – Chairman, American Indian Business Leaders and education consultant

• Ross Racine (Blackfeet) – Executive Director, Intertribal Agriculture Council; rancher

• Monica Nuvamsa (Hopi) – Executive Director, The Hopi Foundation
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At the board's first meeting, Meeks was selected as chair and Williams was named vice chair. Janie Simms Hipp (Chickasaw) has been appointed as executive director of the organization.

The trustees plan to hold meetings with Indian farmers and ranchers as soon as they launch the NAAF's website. The goal is to help the board determine how to meet their needs through the grant-making process.

The official mission of the NAAF is “to fund the provision of business assistance, agricultural education, technical support, and advocacy services to Native American farmers and ranchers to support and promote their continued engagement in agriculture.”

The Obama administration settled the Keepseagle case for $760 million. Of that amount, $680 million was set aside for Indian farmers and ranchers whose requests for loans, assistance and other services at the USDA went unanswered or were handled differently due to allegations of bias at the federal agency.

On top of the payments to affected individual Indians, the settlement included an $80 million loan forgiveness fund. The money was to be used to address instances in which ranchers and farmers lost equipment, crops and other capital because they said the USDA failed to treat them in a manner similar to non-Indians.

But even though the case drew significant attention in Indian Country, only about 5,100 farmers and ranchers submitted claims, or about half of the expected number. And of those who applied, only about 3,600 qualified for the settlement, again far less than anticipated.

Even of those who qualified, not all were able to submit documentation to secure larger payments from the settlements, which was divided into two tracks, the latter of which required additional evidence to show direct harm experienced at the hands of the USDA.

So after an initial round of $300 million in payments went out, some $380 million remained. A modification in the settlement resulted in a second round of payments to beneficiaries, the establishment of the NAAF and the creation of the Native American Agriculture Fast Track Fund to distribute $38 million as soon as possible to Indian Country.

A federal judge approved the release of those funds last month. Recipients have included the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes ($317,545); the Bay Mills Community College ($298,503), the National Congress of American Indians ($388,941) and the Pueblo of San Felipe ($239,800), according to a July 19 court order.

The decisions came after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider two appeals to the settlement modification. That left intact a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in favor of the changes.

Indian farmers and ranchers who previously qualified for the settlement received another check and a payment made in their behalf to the Internal Revenue Service. These payments totaled about $77 million.

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Decision
Keepseagle v. Perdue (May 16, 2017)

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