WASHINGTON (AP) - It's an unusual twist for Washington these days: There's money left over from a $680 million settlement the federal government awarded American Indian farmers in 2010 after decades of discrimination.
A three-year claims process is complete, and more than half the settlement money is still available. The plaintiffs want to use the unexpected $380 million windfall to form a foundation that could be the largest Indian country has ever seen.
Joseph Sellers, the lead lawyer for the American Indian plaintiffs, said the amount of money left over was a big surprise to those involved. It turned out that many potential recipients had died, lost any evidence of discrimination or felt too distrustful of the government to even apply, he said. Lawyers expected around 10,000 people to file claims and the remainder to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but less than 4,000 people sought part of the settlement.
The settlement agreement calls for any left over money to be distributed to American Indian farmer organizations, but none of those groups was set up to handle so much money.
So the plaintiffs decided the best way to handle the funds was to set up a new foundation, led by Indian leaders, to help American Indian farmers and ranchers.
"We believe it would be the largest philanthropic organization devoted to native Americans in the history of this country," Sellers said.
The plaintiffs notified the federal court of their desire to form the new organization Friday. The court will then have to approve it.
Sellers said 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.
According to the most recent count by the Agriculture Department, now five years old, there were about 80,000 American Indian farm operators throughout the country, or less than 3 percent of total operators.
If approved, the foundation would give money to smaller groups to train American Indian farmers to help them become more effective at farming and also at seeking government help, including assisting people who apply for farm loans and making sure the government is representing their interests. The new fund could pay out tens of millions a year just off interest generated from the fund, Sellers said.
Claryca Mandan of North Dakota, a plaintiff in the case, said American Indians are concerned about losing land, as they have for generations, and such training and education could help many people keep their farms and pass them on to younger generations.
"This is our chance at leaving a long term legacy," she said. "It wasn't anticipated in the original agreement, but it's probably one of the best outcomes in the case, to leave a legacy like this."
The original lawsuit, named after George and Marilyn Keepseagle of Fort Yates, N.D., was filed in 1999 and contends Indian farmers and ranchers lost hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades because they were denied USDA loans that instead went to their white neighbors. The government settled a similar lawsuit filed by black farmers around the time the Indian lawsuit was filed.
After more than a decade in the court, the government offered the settlement in October 2010. The settlement also included $80 million in farm debt forgiveness for the Indian plaintiffs and a series of initiatives to try and alleviate racism against American Indians and other minorities in rural farm loan offices.
At the time, President Barack Obama said the settlement "helps strengthen the nation to nation relationship and underscores the federal government's commitment to treat all citizens fairly."
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