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As part of Mainstreet Radio series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country,” MPR’s Mark Steil reports on funding and discrimination battles Native American farmers face with the U.S. government.

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.

Today, many American Indians live in two worlds. Off the reservation they are guaranteed all the rights of a U.S. citizen. On the reservation, those federal rights disappear, replaced by the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, enforced by tribal governments. Many Indian people in Minnesota and the Dakotas say they've come to expect injustice both on and off the reservation.

This is part five of eight-part series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country."

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:

part 6:

part 7:

part 8:


2001 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Radio - Large Market - Continuing Coverage category

2001 Minnesota AP Award, Best in Show - Radio Class III category

2001 PRNDI Award, second place in Division A - Series category

2002 RTNDA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / News Series category


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MARK STEIL: Farms are a rare commodity West of the Missouri River in South Dakota, and Indian farms are the rarest of all. On the Cheyenne River 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 cows belong to white farmers who own nearly half the land originally set aside for the Indian Reservation.

Come bos. Come bos. Come cow. Come bos.

SPEAKER: 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.

FRANK DUCHENEAUX: See my uncle was chairman of the tribe for like 32 years down here. So if I told him who I was, they automatically knew that I was an Indian.

MARK STEIL: 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 driving 160 miles to a US 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.

FRANK DUCHENEAUX: They 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, they they'd ignore you again.

MARK STEIL: Other Indian farmers say they were belittled by government officials. Larry Archambault lives on South Dakota's Yankton Sioux reservation. He was told he was not qualified to farm.

LARRY ARCHAMBAULT: I said, hell, I worked, I was raised on the farm all my life. I said, 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.

MARK STEIL: Archambault 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 fall on Ann Veneman, the new Secretary of Agriculture. Veneman has not said what she'll do, but at a recent news conference, pledged action.

ANN VENEMAN: 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.

MARK STEIL: 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.

CHRIS MATO NUNPA: 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, they don't have access to the same resources that apparently their white counterparts have.

MARK STEIL: 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.

CHRIS MATO NUNPA: A lot of rage, a lot of bitterness, and a lot of suspicion and distrust.

MARK STEIL: One of the few to fight back was Cheyenne River Reservation farmer Frank Ducheneaux. In the 1980s, 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.

FRANK DUCHENEAUX: 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 whatever they happen to be and not do it for us, I said, that's wrong. He said, that's the way it is.

MARK STEIL: Ducheneaux eventually filed for bankruptcy. NPR contacted some US Department of Agriculture officials accused of discrimination, but they refused comment. The department's assistant deputy farm loans administrator Tom Kalil is worried the discrimination complaints eventually will affect all farmers.

TOM KALIL: With all of the expenses to the government from these multibillion 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.

MARK STEIL: 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. He calls the agriculture department a racist system, harboring employees who routinely discriminate not only against clients, but also fellow employees.

LAWRENCE LUCAS: This is not a Black issue. It's not a Hispanic or Native American issue. This is an American problem. 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.

MARK STEIL: 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.

FRANK DUCHENEAUX: To me to be treated fair, no better, no worse. You're just another guy.

MARK STEIL: But in the long, twisted history of American Indians in 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, Minnesota Public Radio.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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