The Keepseagle v. Vilsack class action made history in 2010 when Indian farmers and ranchers were awarded $680 million in damages and $80 million in debt relief for decades of harsh discrimination by the USDA’s Farm Loan Program. Now we have an opportunity to make history again – this time by using unclaimed settlement funds to create the largest endowed foundation in United States history dedicated to assisting current and future generations of farmers and ranchers throughout Indian Country.
While no one had anticipated that $380 million would remain unclaimed – and many factors played into this, including the deaths of potential claimants during the time it took to settle the case, the lack of initial documentation by the USDA, and, finally, general skepticism of the government by many – the scope of the remaining funds may well be the best thing to come out of this historic settlement.
Keepseagle class representatives unanimously agreed that using the funds to endow a large, well-managed foundation would be the best use of the funds that remained unclaimed by class members. Such a foundation would have a far more profound and greater long-term impact than dispersing the funds all at once to multiple organizations. Instead, funds from the approximately $30 million in investment earnings this independent foundation is expected to generate each year could be used to make annual grants to multiple qualified organizations into the indefinite future.The first step in creating such an opportunity is to change the provision of the settlement agreement relating to the unclaimed funds. This is why class counsel in a recent settlement status report asked the court to consider the merits of the single foundation concept and how best to create and implement such a plan.
Furthermore, an important provision of the foundation proposal is that it would be managed and controlled by leaders from Indian Country. The foundation board would be comprised of those who are familiar with the farming and ranching needs of our communities. With the Court’s approval, this board – rather than class counsel or any other non-Native entity – would approve recipients of foundation funds.
The benefits that this foundation ultimately can achieve within our farming and ranching communities are boundless. Consider what it would mean to have funds available year after year to provide, among other things, agricultural scholarships for our promising young people; to establish unique programs for the unique needs of Native American communities all over the country; to foster control of Native American natural resources by Native Americans; to provide educational programs at Tribal colleges that build our capacity to grow livestock and crops and provide needed income for our farmers and ranchers; to provide financial and technical assistance to Native farmers and ranchers now and into the future; and, finally, to ensure that Native peoples will be able to remain on the land we all hold sacred.
We urge all who believe as we do that “the land does not belong to us; it is only borrowed from our children” to support this legacy foundation so that this unexpected inheritance will pay forward for countless generations to come.
Marilyn and George Keepseagle, of Fort Yates, N.D., are Keepseagle Class Representatives and members of the Sioux Tribe; Claryca Mandan, of Mandaree, N.D., is a Keepseagle Class Representative and a member of the Hidatsa Tribe; Porter Holder, of Soper, Okla., is a Keepseagle Class Representative and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma; and Ross Racine is Executive Director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council.