American Indian groups argue over settlement money

WASHINGTON — More than $380 million in government dollars left over from a federal discrimination settlement with American Indians is in limbo amid disagreements over how the money should be spent.

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan on Tuesday reviewed a proposal to form a new foundation to help American Indian farmers with the money unexpectedly left over after the Obama administration settled a class-action suit filed by American Indian farmers in 2011. The farmers said they had lost out on decades of farm loans because of government discrimination.

If the judge eventually approves the foundation, it could be the largest charity that Indian country has ever seen. The settlement agreement approved three years ago calls for any leftover money to be distributed equally among American Indian farmer charities, but the lawyers said none of those groups was set up to handle so much money — thus the idea for one large foundation, headed by Indian leaders, said Joseph Sellers, the lead lawyer for the American Indian plaintiffs.

Sellers has argued the idea is that a larger fund could make annual grants to all of the smaller organizations and have a longer-term impact on those groups than dispersing the funds all at once.

The government has not opposed the plan, but American Indian groups — including the plaintiffs themselves — have split with the lawyers originally representing them and opposed the idea, saying the money should be spread out among existing American Indian charities as originally intended or the case should be reopened for another round of claims.

Lead plaintiff Marilyn Keepseagle said in an emotional speech before Sullivan Tuesday that forming a charity with the money instead of further distributing it to those who have suffered discrimination “would be another way for discrimination, because not all people are going to benefit.”

Marilyn Keepseagle and her husband George have expressed frustration that the lawyers and the courts — whom they called the “suits” in a letter to Sullivan earlier this year — have been deciding what is best for Native Americans who initiated the lawsuit. She said in court that they have been made to feel “hopeless and helpless” as they have fought for justice.

“They shouldn’t feel like that in my courtroom,” said Sullivan, who is black. He said he had suffered discrimination as well.

“I know it hurts, of course it hurts,” he said.

While he was sympathetic, it’s unclear if Sullivan will heed Keepseagle’s request. He has already rejected one group’s claim to further distribute the money to claimants, citing the terms of the settlement agreement.

The money was left over after only around half of the 10,000 people lawyers expected to file claims actually did. The process was difficult because the Agriculture Department did not keep records of who was denied loans, so many could not prove the discrimination. Others had lost their own evidence of discrimination or felt too distrustful of the government to even apply.

Some American Indian groups who are protesting the foundation idea along with the Keepseagles say that potential claimants hadn’t heard about the process, and there should have been better outreach. One newly formed group called the Association of American Indian Farmers has called for a second round of claims.

Protesting in front of the federal courthouse before the hearing, the president of that group, Kara Brewer Boyd, said it would be an “insult and injustice” to give the money to a charity. American Indians would then have to ask a nonprofit to “lend them their own money,” she said.

Sullivan encouraged Keepseagle to get her own lawyer since she has disagreed with her current counsel, Sellers. Sullivan indicated that he may not agree with her position in the end, but said “at least you’ll have the opportunity to be heard.”

The original lawsuit, named after the Keepseagles of Fort Yates, North Dakota, was filed in 1999, based on a similar lawsuit settled between the government and black farmers around the same time. After more than a decade in the court, the government offered the $680 million settlement in October 2010.

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