August 13, 2018

The largest U.S. philanthropy serving Native American farmers and ranchers has been established to distribute $266 million from a landmark 2010 civil rights settlement in which the U.S. government agreed to pay for almost 20 years of official discrimination, court filings show.

The class-action case settled for a total of $680 million, but far fewer people than expected made successful claims to the money, leaving $266 million to be distributed through the new Native American Agriculture Fund.

The fund can spend the money at its discretion over the next 20 years under terms filed with a federal judge in Washington.

If the judge had not approved creation of the trust, all the leftover money would have been distributed in equal shares to nonprofit groups chosen by class attorneys in the lawsuit, an outcome all sides opposed once it became clear that the sum would be vast.

The Native American Agriculture Fund was approved two years ago but was on hold pending the resolution of appeals. The fund’s 14-member board of trustees of native peoples held its first meeting after a court gave its final approval in late July.

“This is a monumental day for Native American communities nationwide,” lead counsel Joseph M. Sellers of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll said in a statement prepared for release Monday and obtained by The Washington Post. Sellers, who launched the case 19 years ago, added, “Today we bring a landmark legal case, and hopefully with it, a regrettable part of our nation’s history to a close.”

The suit alleged that the Agriculture Department discriminated against Native Americans in loan programs from 1981 to 1999.

The fund may issue grants for business assistance, education and technical support, and recipients may include new nonprofits as well as certain agencies of tribal governments.

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