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U.S. Indian farmers claims unsettled after decade

BISMARCK, North Dakota (AP)--American Indian ranchers are pressing the government on a decade-old lawsuit that claims they have lost out on at least $500 million in loans because of discrimination.

Pete Fredericks, a rancher on North Dakota's Fort Berthold reservation, says he still hasn't recovered from a brutal winter nearly 30 years ago that wiped out half his black Angus herd. White ranchers in the region fared better because they got financial help from the federal government, he says.

"The 1982 winter was the worst thing that ever happened to me,'' said Fredericks, 73. "I lost 400 head of cattle and my tractor broke in half.''

American Indian ranchers and farmers say the U.S. Department of Agriculture denied or delayed loans, or did not approve enough money for Indian farmers and ranchers. The USDA's Farm Service Agency makes loans to farmers and ranchers who cannot get credit from commercial lenders.

Tribal leaders and attorneys for Indian farmers and ranchers plan to meet Sept. 10 in Bismarck to discuss their lawsuit, which was granted class-action status in 2001.

George Keepseagle, 69, said he's "had to beg to borrow'' and has been denied loans that have been routinely given to his white counterparts.

"I keep chugging along but I'm struggling,'' said Keepseagle, who has had a ranch near Fort Yates, south of Bismarck, since 1960. "By rights and by now, I should be sitting pretty good, but I'm not. Probably all the white ranchers around here my age are probably all paid off financially, and they're sitting a lot better.''

Former Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall, who also is a rancher, said many Indian farmers and ranchers have died or lost their operations since the lawsuit was filed. Some have given up hope the lawsuit will be settled, he said.

"We want to let the plaintiffs know that they can't give up,'' Hall said. "We were first on the land but always the last in line.''

Hall said Indians hope that President Barack Obama's administration will resolve the issue.

"There is definitely new hope with this president,'' Hall said. "Obama is a minority and he probably grew up with discrimination and experienced it himself.''

The case, Keepseagle vs. Vilsack, formerly Veneman, refers to Keepseagle and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Ann Veneman was agriculture secretary when the lawsuit was filed.

The lawsuit echoes a civil rights case brought by black farmers in 1997 that was settled two years later. Hispanic and women farmers have filed similar lawsuits, but those have not been granted class-action status.

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

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