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Published September 11, 2009, 07:31 AM

Indian farmers told not to lose hope over lawsuit

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — American Indian farmers and ranchers involved in a decade-old lawsuit against the federal Agriculture Department were told Thursday not to lose hope.

By: JAMES MacPHERSON, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — American Indian farmers and ranchers involved in a decade-old lawsuit against the federal Agriculture Department were told Thursday not to lose hope.

Dozens of them met in Bismarck to discuss their 1999 lawsuit, which alleges discrimination in granting USDA loans. The case has been mired in the courts.

"We need your moral and spiritual support," Joe Sellers, the plaintiffs' Washington, D.C.-based attorney, told them. "We need you to keep your chin up."

Sellers said a trial date could be set later this year. And he said there is hope that President Barack Obama's administration could resolve the issue before a trial.

"I'm sorry to say the case is a decade old," Sellers said. "We think the end is in sight in this case."

The lawsuit says Indian farmers and ranchers have lost at least $500 million because of discrimination in lending from the USDA's Farm Service Agency, known as the lender of last resort. It issues loans to farmers and ranchers who cannot get credit from commercial lenders.

The USDA has said in a statement that it is "working vigorously to address its inventory of older civil rights complaints ... in a timely and fair manner."

The case is named for Fort Yates rancher George Keepseagle, who said he is honored to represent his fellow Indian ranchers and farmers.

"We've struggled and we're going to win this thing," Keepseagle said Thursday. "Each and every one of us can say we have faced discrimination."

The lawsuit mirrors a civil rights case brought by black farmers in 1997 that was settled two years later.

Claryca Mandan said she and her husband, Keith, have struggled since the late 1970s to keep their ranch in North Dakota's Badlands despite a pattern of discrimination by the federal government.

"I know your suffering — I know your pain," she told her fellow Indian farmers and ranchers Thursday. "I've seen and heard many of your stories of discrimination."

She told of the foreclosure of one Indian rancher who had gone blind late in life. When federal loan officers came to take his land and machinery, she said, the man lay down in the back of his pickup while his wife described what was happening. Her account left many in tears.

Former Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall, a fourth-generation rancher, said discrimination against Indian farmers and ranchers has been ongoing for a century.

The USDA, he said, are people in "black ties, white shirts and black suits ... they are not there to help with loans. They are there to take your best stock."

Ron His Horse Is Thunder, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, said the case is about fundamental fairness.

"It is shameful that the USDA has continued to fight this lawsuit ... they have made Native Americans jump through hoops that African-Americans did not have to," he said.

"This country could be truly great if it takes its foot off the neck of Native Americans," His Horse Is Thunder said.

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