Indian farmers sue government over loan discrimination

Wednesday, November 24th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Indian farmers and ranchers filed a $19 billion class-action lawsuit Wednesday against the Agriculture Department, alleging a 20-year history of discrimination in the granting of loans. The lawsuit parallels a separate civil rights case brought by black farmers charging they were subject to discrimination in receiving loans and other assistance from the USDA.

The case was settled in April at an estimated cost of $2 billion to taxpayers. The 213 Indians who filed the suit with the U.S. District Courtfor the District of Columbia contend they were told USDA loans were not available when they were, that loans were delayed until it was too late to raise their crops or that the approved loans would be less than requested, causing financial and property losses. The plaintiffs also said that in some instances they had to put up more collateral than their white counterparts, limiting their ability to obtain future loans.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman "is deeply committed to native American civil rights and in serving native Americans," said department spokeswoman Susan McAvoy. "He is very concerned about the lawsuit." "What our government has done to native American farmers and ranchers is a national disgrace," said Alexander Pires, the lead attorney. Pires, who also represented the black farmers in their lawsuit, said they would file for mediation immediately and ask the government to agree to stop all pending foreclosures.

Tex Hall, an Indian rancher of the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, said in a statement that the lawsuit "is the result of decades of discrimination by the Farm Services Agency and its predecessors against the original indigenous people of this land. As indigenous people, we are the first farmers and ranchers of this land. All we wanted is a fair chance to become successful."

To be eligible for participation in the class-action lawsuit, an Indian must have farmed or ranched between January 1981 and the present, have applied for a federal farm program and complained to the USDA or tribal authorities about discriminatory treatment they received.