The farmers filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture 11 years ago. Under a settlement announced Tuesday, eligible farmers and ranchers can get up to $250,000 each if they can prove the USDA caused them economic losses, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Wall Street Journal. But most farmers will likely opt for a $50,000 payment that requires less paperwork.
The lawsuit, Keepseagle v. Vilsack, was named for a North Dakota farmer Marilyn Keepseagle, who said the settlement would "help thousands of Native Americans who are still farming and ranching."
"But more important, through this settlement we will leave to our children and grandchildren a farm loan system far more responsive to our community than the system we inherited from our parents," she told The Oklahoman newspaper.
The American Indians' lawsuit has long been overshadowed by similar complaints from black farmers. The Obama administration reached a $1.25 billion settlement with those black farmers last February, but Congress has yet to allocate the money.
The USDA has been subject to several discrimination lawsuits in recent years over allegations of racism in its farm loan programs. The issue flashed into the national spotlight over the summer, when USDA employee Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign after an edited video clip suggested she didn't fully help a white farmer in 1986 because of his race. Sherrod is black.
On a conference call with reporters, Vilsack said Tuesday that he's committed to remedying his department's past mistakes. "USDA has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination," he said, according to Bloomberg News.
Obama issued a statement from the White House, saying the case marks "an important step forward in remedying USDA's unfortunate civil rights history." He also urged Congress to implement the February settlement for black farmers.
The Native Americans' settlement includes an additional $80 million of debt forgiveness and $20 million in administrative fees, Bloomberg said. It still has to be approved by a federal district court, and a hearing is set for Oct. 29.