the senate has approved almost $4.6 billion to settle long-standing claims brought by native americans & black farmers against the government. the money has been held up for months in the senate as democrats & republicans squabbled over how to pay for it. the two class action lawsuits were filed over a decade ago.
the landmark settlements include almost $1.2 billion for black farmers who say they've suffered discrimination at the hands of the agriculture department. $3.4 billion would go to indigneous landowners who claim they were swindled out of royalties by the interior department. the legislation was approved by senate voice vote friday & sent to the house.
president barack obama praised the senate for passing the bill & urged the house to move forward. his administration is also working to resolve separate lawsuits filed against the usda by hispanic & women farmers. said obama, "while these legislative achievements reflect important progress, they also serve to remind us that much work remains to be done."
elouise cobell, a member of the blackfeet tribe from browning, montana & the lead plaintiff in the native americans' case said friday it took her breath away when she found out the senate passed the bill. she said she felt despondent after the chamber tried & failed to pass the legislation many times. two people who would have benefited from the settlement died on her reservation this week.
said cobell, "its 17 below & the blackfeet nation is feeling warm. i don't know if people understand or believe the agony you go through when one of the beneficiaries passes away without justice." john boyd, head of the national black farmers association said the passage of the black farmers' settlement is also long overdue. said boyd, "26 years justice is in sight for our nation's black farmers."
bi-partisan lawmakers have said they support resolving the long-standing claims of discrimination & mistreatment by federal agencies but funding has been caught up in a fight over spending & deficits. republicans repeatedly objected to the settlements when they were added on to larger pieces of legislation. but senate majority leader harry reid (d-nev) satisfied conservative complaints by finding spending offsets to cover the rest.
the legislation also includes a one-year extension of the temporary assistance for needy families program, which gives grants to states to provide cash assistance & other services to the poor, & several native american water rights settlements in arizona, montana & new mexico sought by senator jon kyl (r-ariz).
in the native american case, at least 300,000 indigenous people claim deception from royalties overseen by the interior department since 1987 for things like gas, grazing, oil & timber. the plaintiffs would share the settlement. the cobell lawsuit dragged on for 15 years.
one judge in 2008 comparing it to the charles dickens "bleak house," which chronicles a never-ending legal suit. using passages from that novel, us district judge james robertson noted "the suit has, in course of time, become so complicated...no two lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises."
the native american plaintiffs originally said they were owed $100 billion, but were willing to settle for less as the trial wore on. after more than 3,500 court filings & 80 court decisions, the two sides finally reached a settlement in december. cobell said, "personally i still think we're owed a hundred billion dollars, but how long do you drag this thing out?" she said, "do you drag it out until every beneficiary is dead? you can't do that."
cobell said she feels confident about passage in the house, where the two settlements already have passed twice as part of larger pieces of legislation. for the black farmers, its the second round of funding from a class-action lawsuit originally settled in 1999 over allegations of widespread discrimination by local agriculture department offices in awarding loans & other aid. its known as the pigford case - named after timothy pigford, a black farmer from north carolina who was an original plaintiff.
the government has paid more than $1 billion to about 16,000 farmers, with most getting payments of about $50,000. the new money is intended for people, some estimates say about 70,000 or 80,000, who were denied earlier payments because they missed filing deadlines. the amount of money each would get depends on how many claims are successfully filed.
the bill passed friday would be partially paid for by diverting dollars from a surplus in nutrition programs for women & children & by extending customs user fees. interior secretary ken salazar said, in refernce to the passage of the cobell settlement: "this is a day that will be etched in our memories & our history books."
the obama administration has aggressively moved to resolve the discrimination cases after most of them have lingered a decade or more in the courts. last month, the agriculture department offered native american farmers who say they were denied farm loans a $680 million settlement. agriculture secretary tom vilsack said the passage "marks a major milestone in usda's efforts to turn the page on a sad chapter in our history."
- mark j. tuggle
- harlem, usa
- same-gender-loving contemporary descendant of enslaved africans. community activist, feminist, health educator, independent filmmaker, mentor, playwright, poet & spiritual being. featured at, in & on africana.com, afrikan poetry theatre, angel herald, bejata dot com, bet tonight with tavis smiley, blacklight online, black noir, brooklyn moon cafe, gmhc's barbershop, klmo-fm, lgbt community services center, longmoor productions, nuyorican poets cafe, our corner, poz, pulse, rolling out new york, rush arts gallery, saint veronica's church, schomburg center for research in black culture, sexplorations, the citizen, the new york times, the soundz bar, the trenton times, the village voice, upn news, uzuri, venus, vibe, wbai-fm, wnyc-fm & wqht-fm. volunteered with adodi, bailey house, inc., black men's xchange-new york, colorofchange.org, drug policy alliance, east harlem tutorial program, imagenation film & music festival, presente.org, save darfur coalition, the enough project, the osborne association, the sledge group & your black world. worked on films with maurice jamal & heather murphy. writing student of phil bertelsen & ed bullins. firstname.lastname@example.org.