The largest Native American philanthropic institution in history has been set up to distribute $266 million awarded to Indian farmers and ranchers as part of a 2011 settlement with USDA.

The settlement was the result of a lawsuit, Keepseagle v. U.S., alleging systematic discrimination by the department against Native American farmers and ranchers. More than $300 million has already been distributed to individual claimants, and now a trust called the Native American Agriculture Fund has been established.

“In many ways, the creation of the Native American Agriculture Fund trust could turn out to be one of the most lasting legacies of this case because it will create the largest non-profit institution to serve Native Americans in the history of this country,” Joseph M. Sellers, lead counsel for the plaintiffs and chair of the civil rights and employment practice group at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, said in a news release.

“We look forward to seeing the (NAAF) move forward to bring benefits to Indian farmers and ranchers beyond what litigation alone has provided,” he added.

Janie Hipp, executive director of the NAAF, said that “Native American agriculture is at an important moment for investing in meeting the needs of our agriculture producers. “Combining such investments with the continued focus on feeding ourselves will create important new opportunities to solidify our economies, strengthen our communities and improve our access to healthy foods.”

Hipp said that she and the trustees of the fund will be working to develop “strategies for grant-making and building a solid administrative office for carrying out the responsibilities of the fund.”

Filed in 1999, the lawsuit alleged that since 1981, USDA had “systematically denied Native American farmers and ranchers nationwide the same opportunities as white farmers to obtain low-interest rate loans and loan servicing, causing them hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses,” according to the release.

A meeting was held July 23 to set up the fund. On Aug. 22 another meeting will be held in Minnesota to discuss how to move forward.

“It is a very exciting time in Indian country,” Christine Webber, plaintiffs’ class counsel and a partner in Cohen Milstein’s civil rights and employment practice, told Agri-Pulse.

The original settlement in 2011 awarded $680 million to the plaintiffs, but after money was distributed for about 3,600 claims, there was still about $380 million left over, leading to a protracted court battle.

In 2016, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan approved an addendum to the settlement, allowing claimants to receive additional payments and allowing $38 million to be distributed in grants.

The largest number of projects funded support infrastructure or large equipment purchases, ranging from irrigation projects, to purchasing large farm equipment to be shared by small producers, to building facilities needed to link producers to markets, while other projects focus on providing technical assistance or training,” the news release said.

The NAAF will have 20 years to distribute the $266 million. "It's going to be an ongoing process," Webber said.

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