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Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country
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Plowing Native Ground
By Mark Steil - April 2001
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Federal funds are one of the major sources of wealth in the agricultural economy, accounting for nearly half of farmers' income last year. When farmers can't get access to that money, it can put them out of business. That's what a group of American Indian farmers say happened to them, and they're suing for damages. They allege they were denied federal help because of discrimination. Many say it's just the latest in a long history of abuse by the federal government.

"There's a lot of rage, a lot of bitterness and a lot of suspicion and distrust" toward the federal government, according to Southwest State University professor Chris Mato Nunpa.
(MPR Photo/Mark Steil)

FARMS ARE A RARE COMMODITYwest of the Missouri River in South Dakota and Indian farms are the rarest of all. On the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in the north central part of the state, the flat prairie is broken by buttes jutting several hundred feet into the sky. Scattered groves of trees shelter farm buildings, while cattle graze the grasslands. Most of the cattle belong to white farmers, who own nearly half the land originally set aside for the Indian reservation.

Frank Ducheneaux has a checkered career in agriculture. He went bankrupt once and left agriculture for a time, but struggled back to build a small herd of cattle again. He's a member of the Cheyenne River tribe, though he candidly says he could pass for white. Off the reservation that is. On it, his family name is well known.

"My uncle was chairman of the tribe for 32 years down here. And of course he had the same name I did. So if I told them who I was they automatically knew that I was an Indian," says Ducheneaux.

Some white residents of the area, who would only talk anonymously, say the reason many Indians went out of business is they weren't good farmers. Ducheneaux agrees agriculture is a tough business, but believes racial discrimination played a role in his troubles. He remembers once driving 60 miles to a U.S. Agriculture Department office to apply for a loan. What he found there was not the red-hot discrimination of name- calling, but instead a cool silence.

"They'd just ignore you. You couldn't talk to anybody. So, they'd say 'come back two weeks from now.' Well, you'd come back two weeks from now and they'd ignore you again," he says.

Other Indian farmers say they were belittled by government officials. Larry Archambeau lives on South Dakota's Yankton Sioux Reservation.

"That's what they told me, go work for a farmer for a couple of years then come back. And I says, hell, I was raised on a farm all my life. I know how to farm. But they said I should go work for a farmer for a couple of years. And that was a joke to me," he says.

Archambeau says discrimination has destroyed Indian agriculture. On his reservation there are no full time Native American farmers left. The responsibility of dealing with the discrimination allegations now falls on Anne Veneman, the new secretary of agriculture. Veneman has not said what she'll do, but at a recent news conference, she pledged action.

Indian Farmers Allege Discrimination by USDA
Following the lead of African American and Hispanic farmers, Indian farmers have sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture, alleging a historical and pervasive pattern of racial discrimination. Read background information about the lawsuit.

Related Information:
USDA Coalition of Minority Employees

"Civil rights is a very important issue in the department and we want to get all of the cases, both the farmer cases as well as the cases that involve employees, resolved as quickly as possible. We are not going to tolerate any discrimination of any kind in the department." Veneman said.

Talk of the Indian farmers' lawsuit draws a knowing smile from one Minnesota college professor. Southwest State University teacher Chris Mato Nunpa says if the discrimination complaints are true, it's an ironic conclusion to the government's plan a century ago to force Indians into agriculture.

Mato Nunpa says they "...want our people to become farmers, want our people to become ranchers, want our people to live like the white man lives. And so when our people do try to do that, then in this case now, they don't have access to the same resources that apparently their white counterparts have."

But despite a disturbing legacy of discrimination, few Indians fought back until the lawsuit. As one farmer put it, "there's no fighting the federal government." For an American Indian, that's a statement loaded with centuries of history, most of it bad. Mato Nunpa says when faced with discrimination, many Indians just say fighting won't help even if the alternative is ruinous emotional turmoil.

"There's a lot of rage, a lot of bitterness and a lot of suspicion and distrust."

One of the few to fight back was Cheyenne River Reservation farmer Frank Ducheneaux. Agriculture department officials told him they were calling in his loans and repossessing his equipment and cattle. Ducheneaux said at the same time, many white ranchers were having their debts written down or forgiven to keep them in business. Ducheneaux went back to the agriculture office and spoke his mind.

"I said, 'I've listened to you all these years, now you're going to have to listen to me. When you will do this for the other white ranchers or farmers, and not do it for us, that's wrong.' He said, 'that's the way it is.'"

Ducheneaux eventually filed for bankruptcy. MPR contacted some U.S. Department of Agriculture officials accused of discrimination but they refused comment. Agriculture department assistant deputy farm loans administrator Tom Kalil is worried the discrimination complaints will eventually affect all farmers.

A simple definition of civil rights: "To be treated fair. No better and no worse. You're just another person."
—Cheyenne River farmer Frank Ducheneaux of South Dakota.

"With all of the expenses to the government from these multi-billion-dollar class-action lawsuits due to civil rights violations, the ripple impact is that Congress is seriously considering ending or extremely limiting our direct lending program," says Kalil.

In the past few years, African Americans, Hispanics and a group of female farmers have also sued, alleging discrimination. The latest to file are a group of white farmers, who say they were discriminated against based on size, charging the USDA favors large operations. The only case settled so far is the African American suit, where agriculture department officials admitted discrimination occurred and so far have paid out several hundred million dollars in damages. Lawrence Lucas is president of a group called the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees. Lucas says he's not surprised so many groups are suing. He calls the agriculture department a "racist system," harboring employees who routinely discriminate not only against clients, but also fellow employees.

"This is not a black issue. It's not a Hispanic or Native American issue. This is an American problem that is bringing down the resources and productivity. We're spending all our time and energy fighting discrimination complaints. We're not doing what we're supposed to do, and that is to serve the American public," says Lucas.

American Indian farmers like Frank Ducheneaux of South Dakota want to see some action rather than more government talk and promises. He says that means following a simple definition of civil rights: "To me, to be treated fair. No better and no worse. You're just another guy, or another person. That's what it means to me."

But in the long, twisted history of American Indians and the federal government, such an easy solution seems impossible. Frank Ducheneaux says even if things did change it's too late for him. At 62, he says he's too old to start over in farming. And even if the Indians win their lawsuit he says any settlement money would do little to right past wrongs. Money is nice, but it can't replace what these American Indians really want back - their lives as farmers and ranchers.

Mark Steil covers southwestern Minnesota for Minnesota Public Radio's Mainstreet unit. Reach him via e-mail at