Black Farmers and Native Americans Finally Get Their Money

John Boyd has led the fight for black farmers to receive fair treatment from the government./National Black Farmers Association

By Dennis J. Freeman

The Claims Settlement Act of 2010 that just went through passage from the chambers of Congress and the House of Representatives has been a long time coming for African American farmers and Native Americans. The egregious ways that black farmers and Native Americans have been treated through acts of discrimination and racism from the federal government has now been remedied. Finally.

After years of litigation, tens of thousands black farmers and an estimated number of half a billion Native Americans will be compensated for racial wrongdoing on the part of the federal government. As much as $1.5 billion is expected to be dished out to aid black farmers. The payout to Native Americans in a separate lawsuit from the black farmers’ cases (Pigford v Glickman, Pigford v Johannes), is as much as $3.4 billion.

The money awarded to black farmers and Indian plaintiffs, however, still far short of fully redressing the issue of blatant discrimination that the Department of Agriculture inflicted upon black farmers and the callous mishandling of Indian trust funds by the Department of Interior. Many claimants have died while awaiting settlement. In the case of black farmers, a number of them lost their land since the settlement was first given the OK in 1999.      

But thanks in large part to President Barack Obama and a White House administration seeking to aggressively pursue monetary justice for these two ethnic groups, the federal government and the country can move forward from what Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described in a recent national media teleconference as “righting the wrongs from the past.”

“The President (Obama) has been very clear to me, in terms of USDA’s efforts, that we are to treat the farmers, ranchers and growers equally fairly,” Vilsack said. “That means not only making sure we’re doing the right thing today, but also righting the wrongs of the past. Civil rights have become a top priority of mine since coming to USDA, and we’ve implemented a comprehensive program to correct past eras, to learn from our mistakes, to take definitive action to ensure that all of our customers are treated fairly.”   

Being treated fair has been a long overdue process for Native Americans, a community recklessly abandoned and largely ostracized from mainstream America’s way of life. Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation Tribe, and several other individuals sought out justice when they filed a lawsuit in 1996 against the government for its horrendous accounting practices when it came to managing Indian trust funds.

It’s taken 14 years for Cobell and her team to receive settlement payments for 500,000 Native Americans. But the wait for justice has been much longer for Indian beneficiaries, whom were granted as much as 54 million acres that the American government was charged to oversee in 1887 as a trustee.       

While the settlement was not a wholesale victory for has happened to Native Americans in the past, Cobell is nevertheless excited about the payout and the willingness on the part of the federal government to render accountability for its actions.

“This is truly an historic day in Indian Country as well as in America’s history,” Cobell said in a released statement. “By Congress placing a seal of approval on this settlement, a monumental step has been taken to remove a stain on our national honor, and create a better future for Indians as our government begins to make some amends for grave past injustices. This unprecedented Congressional action paves the way for a brighter and better relationship with government.

“There is still much to be done in trust reform and improving trustee performance by the Department of Interior, but this huge step makes those other steps possible. While the money is not as much as we believe we are entitled to, there was no end in sight to this litigation and the settlement will be recognized by Native People as an acknowledgment by the federal government that it wronged them by its mismanagement of Indian money and Indian lands.”

President Obama sent out praise to lawmakers for finally getting the settlements done. 

“I am pleased that today, the House has joined the Senate in passing the Claims Settlement Act of 2010.   This important legislation will fund the agreements reached in the Pigford II lawsuit, brought by African American farmers, and the Cobell lawsuit, brought by Native Americans over the management of Indian trust accounts and resources.

 I want to thank Attorney General (Eric) Holder and Secretaries (Ken) Salazar and (Tom) Vilsack for all their work to reach this outcome, and I applaud Congress for acting in a bipartisan fashion to bring this painful chapter in our nation’s history to a close.

“This bill also provides funding for settlements reached in four separate water rights suits brought by Native American tribes, and it represents a significant step forward in addressing the water needs of Indian Country.  Yet, while today’s vote demonstrates important progress, we must remember that much work remains to be done.  And my Administration will continue our efforts to resolve claims of past discrimination made by women and Hispanic farmers and others in a fair and timely manner.”

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