Politics & Government
8:00 am
Thu July 14, 2011

USDA Prepares to Pay Native American Farmers

A bison on RG Hammonds' farm in Lumberton roams close to his golf cart
Credit Leoneda Inge

There’s a section of eastern North Carolina where the Lumbee Indians call home.  The Lumbee have a long history of farming and ranching.  But just like African American and women farmers, they were discriminated against by the federal government.   And just like those groups – Native Americans filed a class-action lawsuit – and won. This week – lawyers are back in Pembroke, North Carolina helping the Lumbees file their claims for long-awaited compensation. 

Most of the Native American farmers and ranchers in North Carolina are in the south eastern part of the state.  And most of them are Lumbee.
That’s why lawyers and staff opened a temporary claims processing office on Lycurous (Lar-kus) Lowry’s farm.  It’s a 200 acre farm – with beef cows, hen houses, corn and more. Lowry says he was glad to open up his home.

Lycurous Lowry:  "They wanted to have a neutral place to have it, instead of being in town or some political organization – said something out on a farm would be good."

After a dozen years of fighting – it’s time for the U-S Department of Agriculture to make good on the Keepseagle 680-million dollar Settlement.  It’s named for George and Marilyn Keepseagle of North Dakota and covers discrimination against Native Americans between 1981 and 1999.  In some cases, loan requests were denied. In others – checks arrived so late it didn’t matter anymore.  Farmers ready to file their claims began stopping by Lowry’s Farm last week and then again this week. It’s the only claims processing spot in the state.

Doug Locklear is the Community Resource Coordinator for the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.  He says his family is filing a claim.  Locklear says all the Lumbees he knows in Robeson County were raised on a farm.

Doug Locklear:  "80-percent of the Lumbees were raised up on farms. Them farms could be 10 acre farms to 500 acre farms or 1,000 acre farms. I personally was raised on about a 28 acre farm."

But Locklear says times have changed.

Locklear:  "Because of the economic situation and because of things like this here, that was associated with it, a lot of them lost their farms, filed for bankruptcy and stuff like that."

Attorney Jillian Hishaw is managing attorney for the Keepseagle Settlement Claims for Zone Five – that’s the southeastern United States.  Hishaw says based on the census and other reports – there may be about five-thousand Native American farmers left in the region and most of them are Lumbees and the Seminoles in Florida.  It’s the beginning of the filing period.

Jillian Hishaw:  "It’s going well everybody seems happy it’s finally settled and they can finally start receiving their reward money.   That’s always good, to give people what they deserve."

The settlement claims fall into two categories – Track A or Track B. The Track A settlement is for up to 50-thousand dollars. Hishaw says the Track B settlement can go as high as 250-thousand dollars.

Hishaw:  "You have to have documentation to prove that there was economic harm. They also have to prove a similarly situated white farmer received preferential treatment. "
That may be easier said than done.  R-G Hammonds – also known as Ronnie – owns Double C-A Farms in Lumberton.  He’d rather not say how many acres he has.

RG Hammonds:  "My pappy always told me if you tell what you have, you’re bragging!"
Hammonds is 64-years-old and was raised on this farm. There are chicken houses being cleaned out, hay being harvested and fed to the cows and there are more than a dozen bison roaming near a pond.

Hammonds:  "The bison had the same journey that the Native American, the first Americans had.  The same journey, the same destiny."
Hammonds says if Native Americans were given the same consideration as white farmers they would have been able to maintain their operation better and even expand.  He says in the late 1980s he applied for a federal program to get his debts written off, but was denied.

Hammonds:  "We had to liquidate live stock to stay current with our obligations. And of course, also we could not expand. There was opportunities then, farms available, we could have expanded, it was a good time.  But that put us in a position.  We just had to hang on."
And Hammonds says once you’ve had a bad year it’s almost impossible to over-come it.  Oh, except if you’re awarded a settlement from a class action discrimination lawsuit against the federal government.  Hammonds doesn’t know if he should apply for Track A or Track B.  He says he knows his losses are more than 50-thousand dollars – but if you apply and are denied the 250-thousand dollar claim – you’re left with nothing.  And Hammonds – and probably many others – may not have even filed discrimination papers back then.

Inge:  "Maybe you didn’t and why wouldn’t you?"

Hammonds:   "‘Bout like the military – somewhat you stay in rank. You don’t break rank you go with the flow.   It may be the thing to do then, but years later when you look back, you realize, hey I should have done this, I should have done that.  But that’s hindsight."

When the Keepseagle settlement lawyers leave North Carolina this week, they’re off to Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.  And if more farmers need help filing claims – they’ve promised a return trip to see the Lumbees.

The Lumbee in southeastern North Carolina have a long history of farming and ranching. But just like African American and women farmers, they were discriminated against by the federal government. This week lawyers are in Pembroke helping the Lumbees file their claims for long-awaited compensation.