Indian Country Wins for Hawaiians Too

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Photo: Robin Puanani Danner

In 1999, in the Keepseagle v. Vilsack case in U.S. District Court, Indian farmers filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture claiming systematic discrimination against Native American farmers and ranchers.

The allegation was pretty straightforward – the USDA had systematically denied Native American farm/ranch applicants the same financial opportunities as non-Native farmers to access low-interest loans and loan servicing resulting, of course, in hundreds of millions of dollars in economic opportunity, lost.

Sound familiar? This is a classic example of the term “redlining.”

In 2011, the court approved a historic settlement that requires the USDA to pay $680 million in damages to Native Americans, forgives $80 million in outstanding farm debt, and mandates the USDA to improve its farm loan services to Native Americans.

Funds have been paid to thousands of Native American farmers and ranchers, as well as a number of Indian governed and controlled organizations, including First Nations Development Institute, Oweesta Corporation, Sitting Bull College, Hopi Foundation, Alaska Villages Initiatives, Intertribal Agricultural Council, and Lakota Fund.

In 2018, the remaining balance of $266 million was directed by the court to a new Native American Agricultural Fund (NAAF) that is now the largest philanthropic institution exclusively dedicated to Native American farming and ranching. The court-appointed renowned Native American leaders as trustees and allowed NAAF up to 20 years to distribute the funds across the country to support a wide range of agricultural strategies.

Native Hawaiians are included as eligible applicants to NAAF. This was an epic hard-fought fight led by Indian leaders, to stand up for all Natives, including Hawaiians living thousands of miles away. Mahalo nui.

NAAF’s first round of grants were awarded in 2019; and the 2020 round of grant awards just concluded. One-hundred and one grantees were awarded a combined total of $15 million. Eligible applicants must be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, a CDFI, or a federally recognized tribal government.

SCHHA statewide leaders unified earlier this year to put forward three different proposals to NAAF.

One as a Native CDFI to make low-interest loans to our farmers and ranchers, one as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) to pilot communal access to farm equipment, and one to advance a foods initiative to issue grants to families to start backyard gardens or greenhouses – all on homesteads. Through its Homestead Community Development Corporation nonprofit and its CDFI Hawaiian Lending & Investments, all three proposals were approved by NAAF.

Homestead farmers and ranchers have been denied access to our own trust fund capital by the State of Hawaiʻi as promised under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920; for 61 years since statehood we have been redlined.

Homestead associations and homestead farmers and ranchers: until the redlining happening here at home is ended by the Hawaiʻi State Legislature, by the Governor, or by our federal congressional delegation, SCHHA calls on you to seek the resources so desperately needed on our trust lands from NAAF. They see you. They hear you. They know you.

Apply in 2021 at nativeamericanagriculturefund.org.