Washington Unfair Agriculture Department discrimination on farm loans and other aid is causing American Indian farmers to lose their land, farmers from about a dozen tribes alleged at a rally Monday.
About 50 Indian farmers and ranchers gathered across the street from USDA headquarters to protest what they contend are unfair practices by department agencies such as the former Farmers Home Administration, now part of the Farm Service Agency.
"First they tried to annihilate us. Then they put us on reservations. Then they gave us the Farmers Home Administration," said Gene Caddotte, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who ranches near McLaughlin, S.D. "We lost our land to Farmers Home."
Caddotte and more than 700 other Indian farmers are suing the USDA, saying white farmers have been treated much better by the agency. A federal judge is to hear arguments today on whether the group's lawyers can sue on behalf of all Indian farmers who may have suffered discrimination, estimated by the Indians at about 19,000.
The Indian farmers say they were denied loans or given unfavorable terms, were not helped in navigating the federal farm bureaucracy and were ignored when they complained.
"We came together, and we all have the same stories," said James Campbell, a Choctaw farmer from Hugo, Okla. "This (discrimination) has been an unspoken policy of USDA."
USDA spokeswoman Mary Beth Schultheis declined to comment on the Indians' lawsuit but said the department is working to improve its civil rights record. Schultheis said the number of civil rights complaints about USDA programs declined from 12,061 in fiscal 1999 to a preliminary figure of 587 in fiscal 2000, which ended Sept. 30.
The Indian farmers' claims are similar to those made by black farmers in a lawsuit the USDA settled last year. Since then, the department has sent $50,000 payments to more than 8,300 black farmers so far more than $417 million. Another 3,163 black farmers have had their claims for the $50,000 payments approved but not paid.