Settlement between Native Americans and USDA approved
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.
GLENPOOL – Native artists from Oklahoma and out-of-state tribes gathered to show their works and educate the public about their crafts Feb. 9-11 at the 31st Greater Tulsa Indian Art Festival.
The festival, the largest inter-tribal fine art show in the Tulsa area, also ranks among the best fine art shows for genuine Native art in the country. Chairman Robert Trepp said the event began in 1987 and was inspired by the cast of the 1984 American Indian Theater Company production “Black Elk Speaks.”
“It was really inspired by a lot of the cast from ‘Black Elk Speaks’ that was put on here in Tulsa, and it’s just grown through the years,” Trepp said. “It’s nationally known. It’s got a big emphasis on Eastern Woodlands cultures, which most shows do not have.”
Volunteers largely run the festival as it draws various artists including painters, potters and jewelers.
“We have artists from all over the country,” Trepp said. “I think for local artists it’s an opportunity for them especially to see each other again and to have that fellowship to share ideas, compare notes as to what they’ve been up to. And for our people out of state, it’s an opportunity for them to come and meet with our local artists.”
Trepp said the festival especially emphasizes citizens of local tribes, including Cherokees.
“The Cherokee are one of the largest tribes in the country, and they sit right here. Their territory wraps all the way around the Tulsa metropolitan area,” he said. “They have a huge influence on Native people and relationships with Native people here in Tulsa.”
The GTIAF 2018 Featured Artist was Jane Osti, a Cherokee National Treasure whose pottery piece “Woodland Song” was chosen for this year’s festival poster.
“This is one of the first shows that I did when I started doing art and selling art,” Osti said. “This is a good nurturing ground and you don’t get too big for it either. You can still do the show even though it might have been one of your starting shows.”
Osti said she’s been doing pottery for more than 30 years and makes her Woodland pieces “the traditional way.”
“I make pottery the old way, the traditional way of hand coiling and they are usually kiln-fired first and then wood-fired,” she said. “The designs and the shapes, a lot of them are from our very old pottery, but sort of moved around in a contemporary way. My teacher was Anna Mitchell, master Cherokee potter and that was the way she did pottery. Just about any Cherokee making pottery has either learned from Anna, or learned from one of us that has learned from her…”
Osti said most people only recognize Southwest pottery, but that she’s seeing a shift.
“A few people are noticing the Woodland Pottery and the Woodland works in general,” she said. “I make pottery and teach it. It’s the way I make a living, but it’s also to ensure that we keep doing our traditional work and passing it on, educating the general public and our customers about our Woodland pottery.”
Cherokee Nation citizen Ryan Lee Smith conducted painting demonstrations to give the public a peek into his creative process.
“It’s hard for me to engage, and that’s what I want to do. I want to show it to people. That’s the reason I do it,” he said. “It gives them insight to the process I’m going through. It might make no sense to them on site, but it allows me to relax and get in my comfort zone.”
Smith said much of his work is influenced by nature, as well as from stories his grandmother passed down to him.
“My grandmother taught me little things like what bird makes this sound and how to grow tomatoes and all these core things that I didn’t know were important until I got older,” he said. “These birds and all these animals, all these things, they were like characters in a story to me, all of them throughout growing up. They seem to be the most honest depiction of things.”
He describes his work as “simple” and “a little tongue-in-cheek,” but hopes that it’s humorous to the public and inspires a “good” feeling.
Smith said he doesn’t worry about rules when it comes to medium or his vibrant color choices.
“As far as the rules, the technical training that I’ve had in grad school and undergrad where they tell you what paint to use on what surface and what type of brush and all that, I feel like it’s almost like they taught me what not to do,” he said. “It just is a little more liberating to break tradition.
The things just sort of find their place, and I’m just kind of like a landlord. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t do this.”
TAHLEQUAH – The Cherokee Nation’s judicial branch has moved from its downtown location inside the CN Capitol Building to space in the recently built second story of the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex.
The Capitol Building was built after the Civil War, completed in 1869 and occupies the center of Tahlequah’s town square. In 1991, the Tribal Council re-established the District Court to utilize the Capitol Building to hear civil, juvenile and adoption cases.
After 27 years and several attempts at a new facility, the CN court system has moved to a new and more modern location.
“We’ve been in the Capitol Building since 1991, whenever the council passed legislation allowing us to continue doing our District Court. We started out there and we pretty much outgrew this building as our caseload started growing,” Court Administrator Lisa Fields said.
The new location encompasses 15,385 square feet of more space and “state-of-the-art” equipment.
“It’s beautiful. It’s state of the art and it’s a really nice courtroom. It’s going to be large enough to hold our court customers or people that come to court,” Fields said.
The new location contains large and small courtrooms, offices for attorneys to meet with clients, new offices for all court staff members, District and Supreme Court filings counters and a separate location from the general public to allow CN marshals to bring in prisoners to have their cases heard. District Court judges and Supreme Court justices will also have their own chambers, which was not available at the Capitol Building.
Fields said everyone in the court system, including justices and other judiciary officials, were in agreement with the move.
“To say the least that we, meaning the justices and the district judges, are very excited and looking forward to the new courtroom. The facilities are very nice. I think it’s just a great move for the court system,” Supreme Court Chief Justice John C. Garret said.
Fields said the court system had a target date of Feb. 26 to begin filings at the new location with the first court docket scheduled for March 2.
The last docket in the previous location was Feb. 16.
Cherokee Nation Businesses officials said they plan to restore and refurbish the Capitol Building for future use as a museum for the public.
“We’re moving into the modern era I guess you could say. We’ve been in this old building, which we absolutely love, but we want to see it go back to its original state and for the public to enjoy it,” Fields said.
TAHELQUAH (AP) — Thirteen years ago, in an unguarded moment on her first day of kindergarten, Emilee Chavez spoke a single word of English. And a classmate immediately ran to tell the teacher.
“Hey,” the teacher raised her voice harshly, “you can’t use English here. Speak Cherokee, or don’t say anything at all.”
Chavez’s parents would have gotten in trouble if a teacher had caught them speaking a word of Cherokee, which is one reason the language began plummeting toward extinction. Schools banned it, so nearly an entire generation stopped speaking it.
For Chavez and her classmates, however, the Cherokee Immersion Charter School turned the tables. They were punished for speaking English.
Launched in 2001 on the grounds of the tribal headquarters, the school started with 23 students. But Cherokee is a hard language. Only nine made it all the way through the program.
“I didn’t say much for the first few weeks,” remembers Chavez, now a high school senior. “But when you’re around the language eight hours a day, every day, you can’t help picking it up. After a while, it’s just natural.”
Now the first batch of Cherokee immersion students is about to graduate from high school, a milestone in a grand experiment that is trying to revive the Cherokee language before it is too late.
They haven’t actually been immersed in the language since the seventh grade, when Chavez and her classmates began studying at the Cherokee Nation’s Sequoyah Schools, where all classes are taught in English. The question then was how far behind would they be compared to their non-immersion classmates, who had gone to English-speaking grade schools.
“We were behind,” Chavez said, especially in reading and writing. “But not for long.”
Now the former immersion school students are all near the top of their graduating class at Sequoyah, officials say. With their graduation upcoming, however, the program will face an even more critical test. Will they retain the language into adulthood? And will they pass it on to the next generation? Or will the tribe’s ancient language continue to fade?
“We’re not just going to walk away from it and forget it,” says Lauren Hummingbird, one of six immersion-school students who will earn their diplomas from Sequoyah this semester. “We’ve worked too hard and we care too much to let that happen.”
Growing up around her grandparents, who are fluent speakers, Hummingbird’s first words were in Cherokee, not English, making her the closest thing her generation has to a “native speaker.” Close listeners can even detect a mild Cherokee accent when she speaks English. But with most other speakers being her grandparents’ age, 17-year-old Hummingbird has to go looking for opportunities to practice her language skills.
Even her old immersion-school classmates tend to speak English to each other when they cross paths in the Sequoyah hallways, although Cherokee can serve as a useful code language when they don’t want other teens to know what they are saying.
“Even then,” Hummingbird says, “it’s usually a mix of Cherokee and English. When I really want to speak Cherokee, I go see my grandparents.”
After graduation this spring, she will spend a year working with the tribe’s Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program, a sort of immersion class for adults, where Hummingbird will be both a student and a facilitator. Then she plans to study linguistics in college before returning to Tahlequah to do exactly what tribal officials always hoped some of the immersion students would do when they grew up.
“I see myself coming back here and working with immersion to teach the language,” she says. “I honestly can’t see my future going any other way.”
Native speakers, however, continue to die off faster than immersion programs can replace them, with only 133 students enrolled in the entire grade school this semester, tribal officials say. For the foreseeable future, the Cherokee language will continue to decline.
“We’re not doing enough,” says Chuck Hoskin Jr., the tribe’s secretary of state. “But we’re taking steps in the right direction.”
When the tribe started the immersion school in the early 2000s, it also conducted an extensive survey to gauge how endangered the language really was. And the results were shocking: Only 10,000 fluent speakers remained alive, almost all of them past middle age.
Officials at the time estimated that without drastic efforts to reverse the language’s decline, Cherokee would be dead “within 30 or 40 years.”
Roughly half that time has now gone by, but not without the tribe’s making progress, Hoskin says.
Before the immersion school and the more recent adult apprentice program, native speakers weren’t being replaced at all as they died off. At least now, a new generation is learning to speak Cherokee.
“They amount to only a handful. We know that,” Hoskin says. “But you can see the dedication, the commitment. And that’s why I’m optimistic about the future of the language, because I can see how important it is to these young people.”
LONGMONT, Colo. – A new First Nations Development Institute report highlights that community foundations often fall short when it comes to philanthropic giving to Native American organizations and causes.
In its report titled “Community Foundation Giving to Native American Causes,” First Nations researchers find that on average only 15/100ths of 1 percent of community foundation funding goes to Native American organizations and causes annually.
The report looks at giving by 163 community foundations in 10 states. In all of the states studied, except Alaska, which was an outlier, the dollar amount of grants given to Native American organizations and causes was lower than might be expected given Native American population size and levels of need.
“Our data suggest that there is very little funding interaction between Native communities and local community foundations,” First Nations Vice President Raymond Foxworth, who was the lead researcher on the project, said. “Obviously we think that’s a problem that can be addressed, so we conclude the report by highlighting strategies and practices we think can expand collaboration between community foundations and Native nonprofits. Overall, we hope that community foundation giving can, in the long term, become more reflective of the rich diversity within states, and this includes supporting Native American organizations.”??
The states studied were Alaska, Arizona, California, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Dakota. The full findings and recommendations can be downloaded at <a href="https://firstnations.org/knowledge-center/strengthening-nonprofit/reports" target="_blank">https://firstnations.org/knowledge-center/strengthening-nonprofit/reports</a>. If you don’t already have one, you will need to create a free online account to download the report.
OKLAHOMA CITY – February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month and the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic, a nonprofit clinic providing services to American Indians in central Oklahoma, wants people to know that there’s a lot parents can do to prevent teen dating violence and abuse.
About one in 10 teens were physically, sexually, emotionally or verbally abused on a date by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past year. One of the most important things parents can do is keep the lines of communication open with their children, OKCIC officials said.
Officials said parents can be a role model and treat their kids and others with respect. They can start talking to their kids about healthy relationships early before they start dating, and they can get involved with efforts to prevent dating violence at their teen’s school, officials said.
If parents are worried about their teen, they can call the National Dating Abuse Helpline at 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522.
“Conversations about healthy relationships and teen dating violence and abuse need to happen early, before teens are experiencing it,” Robyn Sunday-Allen, CEO of OKCIC, said. “Although there aren’t many current studies that identify the rate of dating violence in Native communities, we do know that Native women in the United States experience some of the highest rates of sexual assault in the country. Because of this, OKCIC offers a variety of cultural activities and after-school educational events to prevent domestic violence and promote healthy relationships for American Indians in central Oklahoma.”
The clinic offers a monthly “Clinic Culture Night.” This is a relaxed evening together where people enjoy learning to create a Native American craft, and listen to a speaker talk about domestic violence and how it can be prevented. The next “Clinic Culture Night” is March 21.
For more information about OKCIC’s domestic violence prevention program or to register for a “Clinic Culture Night” class, call 405-948-4900, ext. 604.
A lawyer representing two American Indian tribes urged a federal appeals court Tuesday to keep in place the changes a judge ordered for a South Dakota county's system of removing children from homes in endangerment cases.
Stephen Pevar, a tribal law specialist with the American Civil Liberties Union, told the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that before those protections were imposed, the system was stacked against tribal families. From 2010 through 2013, the state was granted custody of all 823 Indian children it sought to remove from homes in Pennington County.
"The state won 100 percent of the proceedings," said Pevar, who is representing the Oglala and Rosebud Sioux tribes in the case. "It would have been a miracle if these parents had prevailed because they were denied elementary due process."
The tribes sued the county in 2013, saying its procedures for conducting initial hearings in such cases violated the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. The tribes argued parents were denied basic due process protections in these informal hearings, including the right to a court-appointed attorney and to see and challenge the allegations against them.
The chief U.S. district judge for South Dakota, Jeffrey Viken, sided with the tribes in three rulings in 2015 and 2016. He ordered changes to give parents more rights at those initial hearings, which are required to be held within 48 hours of a child's removal from the home to decide whether the child should be returned to the home or be placed in the custody of the state Department of Social Services. Parents previously weren't guaranteed legal protections until a later stage in the process. The county, which includes Rapid City, is now abiding by the judge's orders.
While the case applies most directly to Pennington County, the case has attracted attention elsewhere in Indian Country. The Cherokee Nation and Navajo Nation, the two largest tribes in the U.S., and other tribal groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief that said this lawsuit is vital to ensuring that courts follow the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was enacted in 1978 in response to widespread abuses by state child welfare systems against Indian children and families.
The law sets standards for removing Indian children from their families, terminating parental rights and placing them in foster or adoptive homes. The brief says other states in the 8th Circuit have statutes or procedures in place to ensure those standards are met.
Lawyers for Pennington County State's Attorney Mark Vargo and other officials named in the case argued that the lower court did not follow proper legal procedures, so its decisions should be overturned. Much of their appeal turns on complex legal arguments over whether the state's attorney or the presiding judge in the southwest corner of the state counted as policy-makers responsible for the old procedures who could legally be sued over them.
Parents did get full legal protections later in the process well before their parental rights could be terminated, said attorney Jeff Hurd, who represents Craig Pfeifle the presiding judge for the South Dakota judicial circuit that includes Pennington County.
The appeals court took the case under advisement. Chief Judge Lavenski Smith called it "a very difficult case" and said the panel would rule as soon as possible, but didn't specify when.