Settlement talks set in Indian farmers lawsuit

By Blake Nicholson

Associated Press Writer

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) § A federal judge has approved two months of settlement talks in a decade-old discrimination lawsuit filed by American Indians against the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Both sides in the case asked Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington for the 60 days. Sullivan moved a status hearing that had been scheduled for Wednesday to Feb. 10.

Washington lawyer Joe Sellers, the lead attorney for the Indian farmers, declined to comment. Justice Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz had no immediate comment Tuesday.

The lawsuit, filed in 1999 and granted class-action status in 2001, contends Indian farmers and ranchers lost about $600 million in income from 1981 to 2007 because of discrimination in lending from the Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency. The agency issues loans to farmers and ranchers who cannot get credit from commercial lenders.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Indian farmers and ranchers during a meeting in Washington last month that the department was committed to resolving litigation.

The joint request to Sullivan says "the parties recently conferred and have determined that ... settlement discussions are appropriate at this time." It asks for 60 days "to allow the parties to devote their full attention to exploring a resolution of this matter."

George and Marilyn Keepseagle, who ranch near Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota state line, are the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

"I hope Vilsack stands up to be a man of his word," George Keepseagle told The Associated Press in an interview on his ranch last month. "He keeps saying he's going to resolve this, but yet it lingers on."

The Agriculture Department settled a similar lawsuit with black farmers under President Bill Clinton in 1999, paying damages of $980 million.

Sullivan's order says both sides in the Indian farmer dispute are to issue a joint recommendation on how to proceed by Feb. 8 or individual recommendations if they cannot agree.

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