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Published September 08, 2009, 07:01 AM

Indian farmers’ claims unsettled after a decade

Fort Berthold Reservation rancher Pete Fredericks says he still hasn’t recovered from a brutal winter nearly 30 years ago that wiped out half his black Angus herd. White ranchers in the region fared better because they got financial help from the federal government, he says.

By: By James MacPherson, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun

BISMARCK — Fort Berthold Reservation rancher Pete Fredericks says he still hasn’t recovered from a brutal winter nearly 30 years ago that wiped out half his black Angus herd. White ranchers in the region fared better because they got financial help from the federal government, he says.

“The 1982 winter was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” said Fredericks, 73, who still ranches on the reservation in northwest North Dakota. “I lost 400 head of cattle and my tractor broke in half.”

George Keepseagle, 69, said he’s “had to beg to borrow” and has been denied loans that have been routinely given to his white counterparts.

“I keep chugging along but I’m struggling,” said Keepseagle, who has had a ranch near Fort Yates, south of Bismarck, since 1960. “By rights and by now, I should be sitting pretty good, but I’m not. Probably all the white ranchers around here my age are probably all paid off financially and they’re sitting a lot better.”

Fredericks, Keepseagle and other American Indian ranchers and farmers have waited a decade to settle a lawsuit alleging discrimination by the federal Agriculture Department. The lawsuit says Indian farmers and ranchers have lost at least $500 million because of discrimination in getting federal loans from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, known as the lender of last resort, which lends to farmers and ranchers who cannot get credit from commercial lenders.

Tribal leaders and attorneys for Indian farmers and ranchers plan to meet Thursday in Bismarck to discuss their lawsuit, which was granted class-action status in 2001. It alleges the USDA denied or delayed loans, or did not approve enough money for Indian farmers and ranchers.

Former Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall, who also is a rancher, said many Indian farmers and ranchers have died or lost their operations since the lawsuit was filed. Some have given up hope the lawsuit will be settled, he said.

“We want to let the plaintiffs know that they can’t give up,” Hall said. “We were first on the land but always the last in line.”

Hall said Indians hope that President Obama’s administration will resolve the issue.

“There is definitely new hope with this president,” Hall said. “Obama is a minority and he probably grew up with discrimination and experienced it himself.”

The case, Keepseagle vs. Vilsack, formerly Veneman, refers to Keepseagle and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Ann Veneman was agriculture secretary when the lawsuit was filed.

The lawsuit echoes a civil rights case brought by black farmers in 1997 that was settled two years later. Hispanic and women farmers have filed similar lawsuits, but those have not been granted class-action status.

The USDA, in a statement, said it is “working vigorously to address its inventory of older civil rights complaints ... in a timely and fair manner.

“Secretary Vilsack and his senior leadership team are committed to timely addressing allegations of discrimination made by USDA employees, applicants, and customers,” the statement said.

Joe Sellers, the Indians’ lead attorney in Washington, D.C., said a trial date could be set later this year.

“There has been no discussion about settlement, as yet,” Sellers said.

Attorneys estimate the number of Indian plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit could be in the tens of thousands. Sellers said two of the original seven plaintiffs have died.

Keepseagle, the lead plaintiff in the case, said he’s lost count of the number of agriculture secretaries who have had a chance to settle it.

“It’s been going on so long and there have been so many that I can’t even keep up with who I got a lawsuit against,” Keepseagle said.

He continues to ranch in south central North Dakota on the land where he was born, and where his father ranched before him. He said he still owns about 480 acres of land but had to sell off about 380 acres of his property to pay off debts to the federal government.

Keepseagle said if he ever gets money from the lawsuit, he would use it to buy back the family land.

For Fredericks, money from a settlement would be a salve for a lifetime of discrimination.

“I’d like to get this settled and spend the rest of my short life out of debt,” he said.

Fredericks regrets that his brother, John, who also was one of the original plaintiffs, has died since the lawsuit was filed.

“He didn’t get to see it settled,” Fredericks said.

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