WASHINGTON (AP) -- Discrimination on farm loans and other aid by the Agriculture Department is causing American Indian farmers to lose their land, farmers from about a dozen tribes said during a rally Monday.
About 50 Indian farmers and ranchers gathered across the street from USDA headquarters to protest what they say is discrimination in loans and other aid by department agencies such as the former Farmers Home Administration, now part of the Farm Service Agency.
"First they tried to annihilate us. Then they put us on reservations. Then they gave us the Farmers Home Administration,"
said Gene Caddotte, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who ranches near McLaughlin, S.D. "We lost our land to Farmers Home."
Caddotte and more than 700 other Indian farmers are suing, saying white farmers got much better treatment from the Agriculture Department than their Indian neighbors. A federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday over whether the group's lawyers can sue on behalf of all Indian farmers who may have suffered from discrimination. The Indians estimate that number to be about 19,000.
"We came together and we all have the same stories," said James Campbell, a Choctaw farmer from Hugo, Okla. "This (discrimination) has been an unspoken policy of USDA."
USDA spokeswoman Mary Beth Schultheis declined comment on the Indians' lawsuit, but said the department was working to improve its civil rights record. Schultheis said the number of civil rights complaints over the operation of USDA programs declined from 12,061 in fiscal 1999 to a preliminary figure of 587 in fiscal 2000, which ended Sept. 30.
"Secretary Glickman has made improving USDA's record on civil rights our number one priority to ensure that all of our employees and customers are treated with fairness dignity and respect,"
The Indian farmers' claims are similar to those made by black farmers in a lawsuit USDA settled last year. Since then, the department has sent $50,000 payments to more than 8,300 black farmers, totaling more than $417 million. Another 3,163 black farmers have had their claims for the $50,000 payments approved but not paid.
The same lawyers who represented the black farmers are representing the Indian farmers, as well as groups of Hispanic and female farmers who have filed similar lawsuits.
The Indian farmers say they were denied loans or had more unfavorable loan terms, were not given help navigating the federal farm bureaucracy and were ignored when they complained.
Terry Romero of the Oglala Sioux Tribe said he drove 1,700 miles to attend the rally because USDA officials discriminated against him and his parents by foreclosing on about 600 acres of the family's land. Romero said his family could not make loan payments in part because local grain elevators would not take Indian farmers' wheat.
"Once the prices dropped, they sold us out," said Romero, of Wanblee, S.D.
------ On the Net: Agriculture Department's Office of Civil Rights: http://www.usda.gov/da/cr.html The Indians' lawyers: http://www.farmerslawyer.com/NA.html