Indian ranchers seek settlement of lawsuit
Basil Alkire spent untold hours waiting in vain for a chance to meet with an official who would sit down and renegotiate the terms of his ranching loan.
The hoped-for meeting never came, and Alkire had to give up ranching near Fort Yates, N.D., on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and work as a maintenance man to support his six children.
Alkire's next great hope for redress came 10 years ago, when he signed on as one of more than 800 American Indian ranchers and farmers named in a class-action lawsuit alleging the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against them in its lending programs.
But Alkire, who succumbed to cancer three years ago, died before he could have his day in court.
His daughter, Janet Thomas, now aims to take his place in the lawsuit.
Today, plaintiffs in the case and their lawyers will gather in Washington to urge the Obama administration to end what they say are decades of discriminatory lending practices and to provide relief to thousands of native farmers and ranchers who were victims of discrimination.
Claryca Mandan, who once ranched with her husband near Mandaree, N.D., on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, is one of those who will plead the case for resolving a case that was filed when Bill Clinton was president.
"I don't know if we'll live to see the end of this case," said Mandan, 55, whose 57-year-old husband has serious heart problems. "For us, it's been a lifetime." But, she adds, "We're still here."
Joseph Sellers, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said Tom Vilsack, Obama's secretary of agriculture and a former Iowa governor, has made encouraging comments about wanting to overcome persistent criticism about discrimination against minorities.
Calls seeking comment from the U.S. Agriculture Department weren't returned Tuesday.
Damages from a pattern of discriminatory lending, according to an analysis by economic experts for the plaintiffs, are significant, Sellers said. "I can tell you it's multiple hundreds of millions of dollars. The evidence we already have is very strong."
Failing a settlement, the plaintiffs would move to take the case to trial as soon as possible. The Clinton administration settled a class-action discrimination lawsuit by black farmers.
The Bush administration waged an aggressive defense against the lawsuit by American Indian ranchers and farmers, with plaintiffs in the case saying the government threw in many procedural side issues to delay the case from being heard.
"This litigation has become generational," Mandan said, noting several plaintiffs have died, and the case is passing to their children. "That's horrible."
The Mandans were forced to stop ranching in the late 1980s because they were unable to get operating loans through the USDA, although workouts were available to non-Indian farmers and ranchers, Claryca Mandan said.
"Credit is an essential tool of agriculture," she added. "That's been denied to us for far too long."
Thomas, who works as the executive director of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said a resolution of the case is important to allow her mother to remain in her house, which is on Alkire family land 17 miles south of Fort Yates.
"The main thing is we do not want to lose our land," she said.
The government's drawn-out defense of the lawsuit appears to be a stalling tactic, Thomas added. "To me, I think they just hoped they would die off. My dad, he was really sad that he wasn't able to see this come to an end. It is heartbreaking."
Mandan, who will be accompanied by Tex Hall, former chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation and former president of the National Conference of American Indians, said the plaintiffs remain stubbornly committed to the case.
"We haven't given up," she said. "We're still here. We're still seeking resolution." The new administration's position should become clear soon enough. A status conference in the case, pending in U.S. District Court in Washington, is scheduled for Friday.