Settlement between Native Americans and USDA approved

BY STAFF REPORTS
05/04/2011 06:52 AM
WASHINGTON – U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan on April 28 granted final approval of the historic settlement between Native American farmers and ranchers and the United States Department of Agriculture in a case known as Keepseagle v. Vilsack.

Resolving a nationwide class action lawsuit, the Keepseagle settlement agreement requires the USDA to pay $680 million in damages to thousands of Native Americans, to forgive up to $80 million in outstanding farm loan debt and to improve the farm loan services USDA provides to Native Americans.

“Final approval of the Keepseagle settlement marks the end of an unfortunate chapter in our nation’s history where USDA’s credit discrimination against Native Americans was the norm. Under this settlement, Native American farmers and ranchers will finally receive the compensation and justice they deserve, and we will undertake a process to ensure that the USDA treats Native Americans equally and fairly,” said the lead plaintiffs’ attorney Joseph M. Sellers.
Named plaintiffs Claryca Mandan, of Mandaree, N.D.; and Porter Holder, of Soper, Okla., who attended the fairness hearing, were elated by the court’s official ruling.

“We’ve waited three decades for the USDA to be held accountable to the Native American people. So today is a great day, indeed,” said Mandan. “The changes to USDA’s Farm Loan Program will mean that our children and grandchildren will inherit a system that is far more responsive and fair to Native Americans than the system that hampered our generation of farmers and ranchers.”

The class-action lawsuit was filed more than 11 years ago, on the eve of Thanksgiving 1999. The plaintiffs alleged that since 1981, Native American farmers and ranchers nationwide were denied the same opportunities as white farmers to obtain low-interest rate loans and loan servicing from USDA, causing them hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses.

The settlement agreement approved by the court represents an extraordinary result for the plaintiffs. The settlement’s $760 million in monetary relief represents about 98 percent of what the plaintiffs could possibly have won at trial, according to an expert report prepared by a former USDA economist for the plaintiffs. All funds for the settlement will be paid from the federal Judgment Fund, which is controlled by the U.S. Department of Justice, and will not have to be approved by Congress.

Now that the settlement agreement has received final approval, Native American farmers and ranchers will have until Dec. 24 to file claims for damages and debt relief. Keepseagle class members will have an option to file individual claims under either Track A or Track B.

Track A permits eligible class members to recover up to $50,000 by providing information under oath that they are Native Americans, that they farmed or ranched (or attempted to farm or ranch) between 1981 and 1999, that they sought a loan or loan servicing from USDA during that period, and that they complained when they were denied a loan or otherwise treated unfavorably.

Track B permits eligible class members to seek an award of damages up to $250,000, with the amount based upon evidence of their actual economic loss. Track B claims must submit evidence that would be admissible in court to satisfy each of the same elements as Track A, and in addition, must identify a similarly situated white farmer who received more favorable treatment.

Starting in July, class counsel will conduct a series of meetings to assist Native American farmers and ranchers with filing claims under Track A. These meetings will occur throughout Indian Country from July through December. Class members are encouraged to retain individual counsel for Track B claims, as far more is involved in preparing a successful Track B claim than a Track A claim. A list of attorneys willing to consider Track B claims will be provided to interested class members. Claims approved by a neutral adjudicator are expected to be paid in the summer of 2012.

Notification of meetings and information on how to file a claim can be found online at IndianFarmClass.com or by calling 1-888-233-5506.

Under the settlement, the USDA also will forgive up to $80 million in debt currently held by class members whose claims are approved under Track A or Track B. When the U.S. District Court granted preliminary approval of the settlement in November 2010, that order put into effect a moratorium on foreclosures, debt accelerations and debt offsets not already referred to the U.S. Treasury Department.

The moratorium currently applies to all Native American farmers and ranchers and for those who file Track A or Track B claims the moratorium will last until the claims process has concluded. After the debt relief is provided, if there are any class members with remaining debt, who are delinquent on any outstanding USDA farm loan debt, the USDA will engage in a round of loan servicing of that debt.

The third provision of the settlement agreement calls for the USDA to improve the delivery and responsiveness of its farm loan program to Native American farmers and ranchers. One of the most important provisions is the creation of the Native American Farmer and Rancher Council, a new federal advisory committee. The council will have 15 members, 11 of who will be Native Americans or represent Native American interests and four of who will be top USDA officials.

It will meet at least twice a year for the next five years to discuss how to make USDA’s programs more accessible for Native Americans farmers and ranchers. It will report its recommendations directly to senior UDSA officials.

In addition to establishing the council, the USDA will take the following additional steps to improve its services: create 10 to 15 USDA regional sub-offices that will provide education and technical assistance to Native American farmers and ranchers and their advocates, undertake a systematic review of its farm loan policies to determine how its regulations and policies can be reformed to better assist Native American farmers and ranchers, create a customer guide on applying for credit from the USDA, create the Office of the Ombudsperson to address concerns of all socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and regularly collect and report data on how well Native Americans fare under USDA’s farm loan programs.

News

BY JAMI MURPHY
Reporter
04/27/2015 08:00 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Cherokee Nation officials are continuing the application process for a Joint Venture Project that will help provide a new hospital in Tahlequah in cooperation with the Indian Health Service. IHS Environmental Health and Engineering Director Gary Hartz said his office deals with hospital and clinic plans, designs and construction and that the CN is continuing to prepare the planning documents. “I expect that they (the documents) will be forthcoming here in the not too distant future,” Hartz said. CN Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said tribal officials are preparing planning documents that IHS officials will review. These planning documents will help determine what specifically IHS will fund. The next step after the planning documents are reviewed will be the negotiation period between the tribe and IHS to determine funding. In January, the CN announced it was awarded the Joint Venture Program project to help pay for a new hospital. As part of the agreement between the CN and IHS, the tribe will fund the construction of a more than 250,000-square-foot facility on the hospital’s Tahlequah campus. IHS initially provides up to $30 million per year for 20 years for staffing and operations, according to CN Communications. Hoskin said that figure was determined on the “estimated size of the facility and the types of services offered.” “A number of details remain to be worked out to determine the actual amount of funding, but CN is confident that the funding will be up to $30 million per year. IHS’ commitment will be 20 years and we anticipate that this period will be reviewed for the life of the facility,” Hoskin said. No construction can begin until IHS and tribal officials sign a Joint Venture agreement. Hoskin added that the venture would transform Hastings into a state-of-the-art health campus. “Cherokee Nation successfully leveraged its commitment to putting its own dollars toward the construction of facilities, along with our solid record for providing qualified care, to obtain this JV,” he said. “The injection of $30 million in new operating funds will benefit our entire health system, including by addressing staffing issues.” Hartz said at this time it is premature to guess or assume how much funding would be awarded to the CN for the new facility’s operation. “Until at least we get all the documents in here,” he said. “We look at not only the project justification document that’ll be coming in as one of the planning documents, but also the program of requirements, which gets a lot more into what the tribe has identified as their staffing need. And we need to go through that validation, that it’s consistent with our planning methodologies. And until all that is done, the calculation of exact dollars is not finalized.” Until all the documents are received and reviewed by the IHS, Hartz said it would be speculation on when funding amounts could be determined.
BY TESINA JACKSON
Reporter
04/25/2015 08:00 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Six current Tribal Councilors have perfect attendance with regards to Tribal Council and special Tribal Council meetings, according to meeting minutes. For current legislators serving between Aug. 14, 2011, and April 13, 2015, Jack Baker, Joe Byrd, Tina Glory Jordan, Dick Lay, Janees Taylor and David Walkingstick have 100 percent attendance. Byrd began serving on the Tribal Council on Jan. 23, 2012, after winning an election to replace Bill John Baker, who became chief on Oct. 19, 2011, after a drawn-out principal chief’s race. Janelle Fullbright has 98 percent attendance and Don Garvin had a 97 percent attendance record. Lee Keener and Curtis Snell have 96 percent attendance. Harley Buzzard, who began serving on the Tribal Council on Aug. 14, 2013; Frankie Hargis, who began serving on Dec. 12, 2011; and Victoria Vazquez, who began serving on Oct. 22, 2013, have 95 percent attendance. David Thornton was next with 94 percent attendance. Julia Coates and Cara Cowan Watts both have 88 percent attendance, and Jodie Fishinghawk has 84 percent attendance. Four other people served on the Tribal Council during the time period but are no longer serving. Buel Anglen, who served from Aug. 14, 2011, to Aug. 13, 2013, had 100 percent attendance. Bill John Baker, who served about two months before becoming principal chief, also had perfect attendance. Chuck Hoskin Jr., who served from Aug. 14. 2011, to Aug. 29, 2013, had perfect attendance as well. Meredith Frailey, who served from Aug. 14, 2011, to Aug. 13, 2013, attended 93 percent of the meetings. The Cherokee Nation’s legislative branch consists of 17 Tribal Councilors. They are elected by popular vote to four-year terms. Fifteen are elected to represent the districts within the tribe’s 14-county jurisdictional boundaries and two are elected to represent CN citizens who live outside the boundaries. The Tribal Council has the power to establish laws, which it shall deem necessary and proper for the good of the Nation. According to the CN Constitution, the council shall establish its rules for its credentials, decorum and procedure however there are currently no policies regarding absences in their rules and regulations.
BY STAFF REPORTS
04/24/2015 02:00 PM
CLAREMORE, Okla. – The “Mid-Afternoon Frolic,” second edition, in May at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum is planned for younger talents. Designed for students in the seventh grade and lower, the family friendly talent show will be 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on May 3 in the museum’s Will Rogers Theater. Will Rogers entertained audiences at the “Midnight Frolic,” held on the rooftop of the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City. Patrons were entertained with music, humor and dance numbers. Named for that venue, the “Mid-Afternoon Frolic” will include talent numbers of music, humor and dance. Space is limited to 20 participants. Acts are limited to four minutes. BancFirst will sponsor cash prizes including $150 for first place, $100 for second place and $50 for third place. Applications are available on line at <a href="http://www.willrogers.com" target="_blank">www.willrogers.com</a>, link on Upcoming Events, by email at wrinfo@willrogers.com or by calling 918-343-8118.
BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
04/24/2015 12:00 PM
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — In an unusually public fight, a Cherokee advocacy group is challenging a half-million dollars in extra pay the Tribal Council recently approved for itself, saying the North Carolina tribe can't afford raises for top officials while other services suffer. The dispute has exposed details of tribal operations not often seen by outsiders and comes months before elections for top tribal posts. The group argues that Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lawmakers violated tribal law when they voted in October to give current and former council members raises retroactive to 2010, according to a letter to the council. The raises and back pay through 2015 exceed $500,000, and hundreds of thousands more in tribal funds will go to adjusted retirement benefits, the group says. "At a time when vital Tribal programs in the areas of health, elder services, families and children continue to be underfunded, such exploitation of public office for personal gain is simply unconscionable," the letter dated April 16 states. The group's Asheville-based attorney, Meghann Burke, said the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for Justice and Accountability plans to file a lawsuit in Cherokee Tribal Court if the council doesn't return the money by its May 7 meeting. The group quotes tribal law as saying pay raises can't go into effect until the council's next term and that increases "shall not exceed the amount appropriated in that fiscal year for tribal employees." All 12 Tribal Council members, who serve two-year terms, as well as the principal chief, who serves a four-year term, are up for election in the fall. Tribal lawmakers passed the pay raises 9-1, with two sitting out, in their budget in October. Budget documents obtained by the advocacy group show each member received a raise of about $10,000 for the fiscal year starting in October. The new salaries range from about $80,000 for most members to about $86,000 for chairwoman Terri Henry. The group says several former council members also received retroactive payments of as much as nearly $24,000. The members who sat out of the vote, Teresa McCoy and Albert Rose, filed protests and unsuccessfully sought to undo the raises. A memo from Rose to Henry says the "Tribal Council cannot institute a pay increase until the next Council is seated" and the raises are "a direct violation" of tribal law. If filed, the advocacy group's lawsuit would ask the court to declare the raises invalid and make the council members return the money. The tribe's acting attorney general, Hannah Smith, and Tribal Council Vice Chairman Bill Taylor declined to comment, and Henry didn't respond to a phone message. Principal Chief Michell Hicks didn't return a message left Wednesday with his assistant. In the past, dismay over raises for the council led to changes in the law. The 2004 resolution that became the law on council pay raises said tribe members felt the panel had previously given itself unfair raises of $10,000 or more. "Tribal Council should set the example for curbing spending," says the unanimously passed resolution. Documents obtained by the advocacy group show average annual pay increases for tribal employees were between 2 and 4 percent annually for the decade ending in 2013. A 2014 memo from Smith to top tribal officials says tribal employees are in a separate category from members of the government. The tribe has approximately 15,000 enrolled members and employs about 4,000 in government and tribal businesses, spokeswoman Lynne Harlan said. Most of the tribal government's revenue comes from gambling operations anchored by the sprawling Harrah's Cherokee Hotel and Casino, and the tribe is building a second casino. A report by an outside accounting firm showed that gambling provided nine-tenths of tribal government revenues for the 2008 and 2009 fiscal years. The dispute provides a wider look at tribal operations than outsiders typically get. The tribe's laws guarantee enrolled members — but not necessarily others — access to public records and meetings. A reporter for the Smoky Mountain News, a weekly newspaper that has frequently covered the tribe, wrote in December that she and other journalists were denied entry to a meeting that month. Becky Walker, one of the leaders of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for Justice and Accountability, said a core group of 6 to 10 members has participated for years but support has swelled since the decision on pay raises. "We have been attending meetings for years ... and have been really upset with some of the decisions," she said, adding that this is the first time they've hired a lawyer to take action. There were public protests of the decision, and Walker says she's heard from many tribe employees who are upset but afraid to speak out. Concerns include that the tribe has overextended itself with the new casino and other businesses. "A lot of the enrolled members have concerns about how much debt we're in," she said.
BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
04/24/2015 10:00 AM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A group of American Indian actors walked off the set of an Adam Sandler movie this week over complaints about stereotypes, offensive names and scenes they say disrespected Native American religious practices. Actor Loren Anthony told The Associated Press on Thursday that he and eight others quit the production of the satirical Western "The Ridiculous Six" after producers ignored their concerns about its portrayal of Apache culture and the inappropriate use of props. Anthony said the script included offensive names for Native American female characters and a scene where a Native American woman urinated while smoking a peace pipe. Another scene used chicken feathers on teepees, he said. "Right from the get-go, it didn't feel right. But we it let it go," said Anthony, a Navajo actor who started work as an extra on the movie Monday. "Once we found out more about the script, we felt it was totally disrespectful to elders and Native women." "The Ridiculous Six" is produced by Sandler and Allen Covert and is slated for a Netflix-only release. Production began this month in Santa Fe and elsewhere in northern New Mexico. The film is a comedy designed to lampoon stereotypes, Netflix said. "The movie has 'ridiculous' in the title for a reason: because it is ridiculous," a company statement released by Netflix said. "It is a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of — but in on — the joke." A spokesman for Sandler's Manchester, New Hampshire-based production company, Happy Madison Productions, didn't immediately return a phone message. Goldie Tom, another extra who departed the set Wednesday, said producers told the group to leave if they felt offended and that script changes were not up for debate. "This just shows that Hollywood has not changed at all," Tom said. She added the production had a number of non-Native American actors portraying American Indians, a long-standing complaint about the movie industry. The actors said a Native American consultant hired by the production also walked off the set. The New Mexico Film Office said Thursday the dispute was a First Amendment issue and the office had no say over the movie's content. "As long as the production meets the requirements in the film credit statute, there is nothing prohibiting them from filming in New Mexico and receiving the rebate," the office said in a statement. Outgoing Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly lauded the extras' decision. "Our Native American culture and tradition is no joking matter," Shelly said. "I applaud these Navajo actors for their courage and conviction to walk off the set in protest." David Hill, 74, a Choctaw actor from Oklahoma who left the set, said he thought the film industry was heading toward better portrayal of American Indians before this experience. "Over the years, we have seen change. Then this," Hill said. "We told them, 'Our dignity is not for sale.’"
BY STAFF REPORTS
04/23/2015 12:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Cherokee Phoenix is asking Cherokee Nation citizens to submit questions they would like to ask either the principal chief or deputy chief candidates during the Cherokee Phoenix Debate 2015. The debates are slated for 6 p.m. on May 16 at the Northeastern State University’s Robert P. Webb Auditorium in Tahlequah. Those interested in submitting a question can do so by using #askthechief2015 on social media websites Facebook or Twitter. The Cherokee Phoenix may select or modify a submitted question and ask it during the debates. Click <a href="http://www.cherokeephoenix.org/Article/index/9046" target="_blank">http://www.cherokeephoenix.org/Article/index/9046</a> for additional information.