Loquitur // Winter 2019
In the national class action civil rights discrimination lawsuit, Keepseagle v. Vilsack, American Indian ranchers and farmers sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture saying American Indians were denied equal access to its Farm Loan Program. Though the USDA did not admit discrimination, it agreed to a $760 million settlement.
Alicia Nevaquaya MSEL’08 worked on the aftermath of the case. As a claims representative for the Intertribal Agriculture Council, she identified farmers and ranchers who would benefit under the terms of the suit. This meant traveling all over eastern Oklahoma, meeting these small business owners in the field.
“It was really interesting,” Nevaquaya says. “I would go from the field with cows and farmers and fill out claims and other USDA paperwork on the dashboard of their trucks. Then I’d be back in the office—sometimes even at a White House consultation. I’d be in their hay field, or chicken houses, turkey houses, or hog houses, or at their commodity crop fields and I’d leave…to go to the White House events.”
While in the field, farmers and ranchers told Nevaquaya how they’d seek assistance from the USDA, only to be told they’d have to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “They could not get any relief anywhere in order to farm their land,” she says. “As a result, oftentimes what would happen is non-Indian farmers in the area would lease their land because the Native Americans couldn’t farm their own land.”
Through the process, “Agriculture became a guiding purpose in my career, as well as farm advocacy and working for the farmers around the country. I can’t see myself not serving farmers and ranchers in my career,” she says.
"Without them, we would literally not eat. Food is critical to our personal health, our personal security, and our national security.”
The settlement vastly changed the lives of hundreds of American Indian farmers and ranchers, as they saw critical debt relief.
“It is no small feat to bring a claim of discrimination against the United States government by a farmer or rancher, but these people did it,” Nevaquaya says. “And they won."