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Elsie Meeks (Oglala Lakota), former state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was appointed NAAF chair. Meeks also serves as a board member of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. (USDA / Flickr Creative Commons)

The Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF), the largest U.S. nonprofit serving Native American farmers and ranchers, has been established to distribute $266 million from the landmark Keepseagle v. Vilsack case. Filed in 1999 and settled after 18 years of litigation, the U.S. government agreed to pay for nearly 20 years’ worth of discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) against Native American farmers and ranchers.

The Obama Administration settled the case for $760 million, and of that, a $680 million compensation fund was set aside for claims. The additional $80 million served as debt relief for farmers and ranchers who lost equipment, crops and capital due to USDA bias against Indians.

Roughly 5,100 farmers and ranchers submitted claims—far fewer than anticipated—of whom 3,600 qualified for the settlement. Now $266 million remains to be distributed over the next two decades through the NAAF.

A history of the litigation concerning the trust fund, the fast track funds and related issues can be found at: http://www.indianfarmclass.com/CyFunds.aspx.

The court approved Janie Simms Hipp (Chickasaw), director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law, to serve as executive director of the NAAF. Elsie Meeks (Oglala Lakota), former state director for the South Dakota Rural Development, was appointed as chair of the board of trustees.

“Native American agriculture is at an important moment for investing in meeting the needs of our agriculture producers,” said Hipp. “Combining such investments with the continued focus on feeding ourselves will create important new opportunities to solidify our economies, strengthen our communities, and improve our access to healthy foods. Important next steps for the trustees and the director include developing strategies for grantmaking and building a solid administrative office for carrying out the responsibilities of the fund.”

Meeks, a South Dakota rancher and the first Native American to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, told the Washington Post that the fund is developing its strategy. “All of us having served on foundation boards understand how to go about developing a strategy,” she said. “We have a long way to go, but this is a national fund….With some five hundred and sixty Native American tribes, this could be a drop in a bucket — which is why we have to be really smart about how we use this money.”

The fourteen trustees appointed to serve NAAF include:

  • Elsie Meeks (Oglala Lakota) – Board member of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board; former State Director, South Dakota Rural Development; rancher
  • Claryca Mandan (Three Affiliated Tribes) – Lead plaintiff; Natural Resources Director, MHA; rancher
  • Richard Williams (Oglala Lakota) – Consultant; former Director of the American Indian College Fund
  • Porter Holder (Choctaw) – Lead plaintiff; Vice Chair, Council on Native American Farming and Ranching; rancher
  • Paul Lumley (Yakama) – Executive Director, Native American Youth and Family Center
  • Charles Graham (Lumbee) – State Representative, North Carolina General assembly
  • Michael Roberts (Tlingit) – President and CEO, First Nations Development Institute
  • Sherry Salway Black (Oglala Lakota) – Chairperson, First Peoples Fund; Board Member and Consultant to Johnson Scholarship Foundation
  • Pat Gwin (Cherokee) – Sr. Director of Environmental Resources, Cherokee Nation; rancher and expert on Native American heirloom seeds
  • Dr. Joe Hiller (Oglala Lakota) – Professor Emeritus, University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
  • Jim Laducer (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) – Director and majority shareholder, Turtle Mountain State Bank
  • Marilyn Keepseagle (Standing Rock Sioux) – Lead Plaintiff; rancher; recently replaced by Dave Archambault, Sr. – Chairman, American Indian Business Leaders and education consultant
  • Ross Racine (Blackfeet) – Executive Director, Intertribal Agriculture Council; rancher
  • Monica Nuvamsa (Hopi) – Executive Director, The Hopi Foundation

Grant Eligibility

The court-approved trust agreement is irrevocable and cannot be changed. Among the key provisions of the trust agreement are the eligibility criteria for grantees. Eligible grantees include: tax exempt organizations described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code; educational organizations; Community Development Financial Institutions that are also 501(c)(3) organizations; and instrumentalities of federal or state recognized tribes that furnish assistance designed to further Native farming and ranching, under certain conditions.

In addition to meeting eligibility requirements, any grantee of NAAF will have reporting and recordkeeping requirements and comply with certain restrictions set forth in the Trust Agreement on how the funds may be used. Examples of some of the restrictions or limitations on grant purposes include: funds cannot be used for lobbying or political activity, and there can be no grants to individuals or to support litigation. Further clarification on these issues will be forthcoming from NAAF.

The Trustees intend to begin hearing from Native farmers and ranchers as soon as NAAF’s website is launched. Meetings will be scheduled to engage in a series of listening sessions, and surveys will be conducted to ensure NAAF communicates effectively with those it’s designed to assist. Meetings will also serve to ensure the NAAF’s grantmaking resources are invested in areas of greatest importance to Native farmers and ranchers.

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