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Settlement for black farmers, Native Americans approved by Congress

Posted November 30, 2010

— The U.S. House on Tuesday approved almost $4.6 billion to settle long-standing claims brought by American Indians and black farmers against the government.

The Senate approved the measure earlier this month. The two class action lawsuits were filed over a decade ago.

The settlements include almost $1.2 billion for black farmers who say they suffered discrimination at the hands of the Agriculture Department. Also, $3.4 billion would go to Indian landowners who claim they were swindled out of royalties by the Interior Department. 

President Obama has said his administration is also working to resolve separate lawsuits filed against USDA by Hispanic and women farmers.

"While these legislative achievements reflect important progress, they also serve to remind us that much work remains to be done," he said.

Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Browning, Mont. and the lead plaintiff in the Indian case, said Friday that it took her breath away when she found out the Senate had passed the bill. She said was feeling despondent after the chamber had tried and failed to pass the legislation many times. Two people who would have been beneficiaries had died on her reservation this week.

"It's 17 below and the Blackfeet nation is feeling warm," she said. "I don't know if people understand or believe the agony you go through when one of the beneficiaries passes away without justice."

John Boyd, a Mecklenberg County, Va., farmer and the head of the National Black Farmers Association, said the passage of the black farmers' money is also long overdue. "Twenty-six years justice is in sight for our nation's black farmers," he said.

Lawmakers from both parties have said they support resolving the long-standing claims of discrimination and mistreatment by federal agencies. But the funding has been caught up in a fight over spending and deficits. Republicans repeatedly objected to the settlements when they were added on to larger pieces of legislation. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., satisfied conservative complaints by finding spending offsets to cover the cost.

The legislation also includes a one-year extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which gives grants to states to provide cash assistance and other services to the poor, and several American Indian water rights settlements in Arizona, Montana and New Mexico sought by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

In the Indian case, at least 300,000 Native Americans claim they were swindled out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887 for things like oil, gas, grazing and timber. The plaintiffs would share the settlement.

The Cobell lawsuit has dragged on for almost 15 years, with one judge in 2008 comparing it to the Charles Dickens' "Bleak House," which chronicles a never-ending legal suit. Using passages from that novel, U.S. District Judge James Robertson noted that the "suit has, in course of time, become so complicated" that "no two lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises."

The Indian plaintiffs originally said they were owed $100 billion, but signaled they were willing to settle for less as the trial wore on. After more than 3,600 court filings and 80 court decisions, the two sides finally reached a settlement in December.

For the black farmers, it is the second round of funding from a class-action lawsuit originally settled in 1999 over allegations of widespread discrimination by local Agriculture Department offices in awarding loans and other aid. It is known as the Pigford case, named after Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina who was an original plaintiff.

The government already has paid out more than $1 billion to about 16,000 farmers, with most getting payments of about $50,000. The new money is intended for people — some estimates say 70,000 or 80,000 — who were denied earlier payments because they missed deadlines for filing. The amount of money each would get depends on how many claims are successfully filed.

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  • Eduardo1 Nov 30, 2010

    avidreader.......you are so right.!!!!

  • flyguync Nov 30, 2010

    I read somewhere that there were more plantiffs in the lawsuit for the black farmers than we actuall have in the whole country. Interesting....

  • avidreader Nov 30, 2010

    Only a liberal thinks letting people keep the money they earn adds to the deficit. SPENDING adds to the deficit - cut the spending!!!

  • harmstrong4 Nov 30, 2010

    wayneboyd--until they get ready to sell it to developers. I remember in Fayetteville when they started building Cross Creek Mall, the owner of the land kept growing hay and little my little sold off the land. He did not pay much taxes on hay fields. Smart.

  • avidreader Nov 30, 2010

    Reparations, pure and simple. I would love to see the proof - nothing but a hand out and purchase of votes, like they always do. By the way, WE ARE BROKE, where is the money coming from? Hope the new congress refuses to fund this hand out.

  • raleiwayn777 Nov 30, 2010

    I want to hear y'all complain about the tax cuts that will be extended for the rich. Which will add 700 billion to the deficit over the next ten years. Y'all are twisted in your logic. SMH

  • jdupree Nov 30, 2010

    I worked for the USDA Farmers Home Administration in the early 1970s and there was no discrimination on loans. We made farm operations loans and home loans in rural areas. If you had collateral and an income history, you got a loan and if you were low income, the loans were subsidised by the government in the form of very low interest rates. This is just another give-away program.

  • blackdog Nov 30, 2010

    Oh...That's just great. Now we can no longer rip off native AMERICANS or blacks...

  • wayneboyd Nov 30, 2010

    I honestly think that any farmer who owns thirty or more acres of land and is not growing for profit crops on at least 60% of it, the land should be taxed at the same rate as a two acre lot in any residential section of the city. It would greatly increase revenues and certainly give farmers the incentive to be self sufficient. There are numerous farms 200 acres or more in N.C. that are the land lies idle year after year growing nothing.

  • wayneboyd Nov 30, 2010

    Aw cheer up, look at it this way, your grandchildren can whine to the hispanics and blacks and sue them for discrimination.

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