Just to be clear, that is "settles" as in "settles an outstanding court case," and not the colonial sense of the word. Native American farmers today agreed to a settlement of their claims of discrimination against the Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) for three-quarters of a billion dollars.
From a Washington Post article on the settlement today:
The Obama administration announced a $760 million settlement Tuesday to resolve charges by thousands of Native American farmers and ranchers who say that for decades the Agriculture Department discriminated against them in loan programs.
The farmers have fought for 11 years and through three administrations to resolve the case.
"The settlement announced today will allow U.S.D.A. and the Native American farmers involved in the lawsuit to move forward and focus on the future," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.
The roughly 50-page agreement resolves a class-action lawsuit brought in 1999 by nearly 900 people, covering Department of Agriculture actions dating to 1981.
"This settlement marks a major turning point in the important relationship between Native Americans, our nation's first farmers, and the U.S.D.A.," said lead plaintiffs' attorney Joseph M. Sellers, a partner at the Cohen, Milstein, Sellers, and Toll law firm in Washington.
Under the agreement, the department would pay $680 million in damages and forgive $80 million of outstanding farm loan debt.
The federal government also agreed to create a Native American Farmer and Rancher Council to advise U.S.D.A., appoint a department ombudsman, provide more technical assistance to Native American borrowers and conduct a systematic review of farm loan program rules -- all to improve access to farm aid programs.
Sellers credited the Obama administration with opening the door to talks after taking office and seeing "long-standing ... and festering" problems in farm programs.
"With the entry of the new administration, we saw a decided change in the attitude of the government to this litigation," Sellers said. "Rather than kicking it down the road, they really seemed open to working with us."
The financial payments will not require approval by Congress but could be paid from a judgment fund maintained by the Justice Department.
Now, this may not be the biggest story in the political world this week, as the election frenzy grows at a daily rate, but I have to say it was a nice thing to read. And it is a big story indeed for the people affected by it. While it is tempting to say "we owe the Native Americans a whole lot for the way our government has historically treated them," this case is not about some sort of "reparations" for breaking pretty much every treaty we ever signed with pretty much every North American tribe the United States ever dealt with throughout history -- this case was only about the past couple of decades. Much more recent discrimination, in other words.
This is exactly why a lot of folks voted for Barack Obama. Instead of fighting this case to the bitter legal end of the road, as two previous administrations had done, Obama and Holder decided to do what was right instead. As we enter the final two weeks of the current campaign season, to me this was a poignant reminder of "change we can believe in," even if it is a minor story which will soon be overwhelmed by wall-to-wall election coverage.
It's a good time of year for it, as well. Because Thanksgiving is right around the corner, which is supposed (in the easily-digestible children's version, at least) to be all about Native American farmers absolutely saving the lives of the white newcomers, by teaching them how to grow their own food. In other words, I bet this settlement gets a prominent mention in the White House's official Thanksgiving Day message.
[Note: Sorry for the short column today, but I think we all needed a break from the constant election coverage... which will resume here tomorrow, I should mention... and this was just a nice story which I felt would likely be mostly ignored. Also, I had a ton of comments to answer this morning, which put me behind schedule....]
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant