Patrick B. McGuigan
A legal and policy joust over water rights – pitting two major Oklahoma tribes against the city of Oklahoma City – has grown increasingly acrimonious. The controversy unfolds as participants in the unfolding litigation have usually avoided reference to the aboriginal interests of a smaller tribe.
Meanwhile, U.S. Reps. Dan Boren of Muskogee and Tom Cole of Norman co-hosted a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Don Young of Alaska at Oklahoma City's Petroleum Club last Thursday (November 10). A large crowd attended the event, including hundreds of employees of tribal governments, a source who asked to remain unidentified said. Contributions were solicited ranging from $100 to $2,500, according to a flier promoting the event.
Young is one of the longest-serving members of Congress. Presently, he is chairman for the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, part of the House Natural Resources Committee. Given his position, Young could be a key player in the latest maneuvers touching the increasing estranged relations between the city of Oklahoma City and the Choctaws, not to mention the Chickasaw Nation.
In August, the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes file a lawsuit in federal court to prevent the state Water Resources Board from selling to the city water from Sardis Lake in southeast Oklahoma. In a new filing, the tribes last week asserted an aggressive claim to control over the pipeline that feeds water from Lake Atoka into Lake Stanley Draper in southeast Oklahoma City.
Stephen Greetham, counsel for the Chickasaw Nation, asserted in August that the current federal lawsuit was filed because, “The Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations hold treaties with the United States that secure prior and paramount rights to the ownership and management of water resources throughout their territory.” Greetham said treaties with the federal government give the nations “a permanent homeland, and without the sustainable and long-term management of its water resources, that homeland will be undermined.”
A press release on the Choctaw Nation's website asserted formation of a joint legislative water committee was based on “the presumption of the supremacy of state law” and was an “indication of disregard for tribal rights.”
Statements from city officials reiterated previous comments that a judicial solution was most likely, even desirable, in the joust between state and tribal, rural and urban interests.
Jim Couch, City Manager for Oklahoma City and a Trustee for the Water Utility, said “The City supports a fair and equitable allocation of water through a court process. We are hopeful this legal course will result in a just outcome for the City, the Tribes and other water permit holders in Southeast Oklahoma.”
On Friday (November 11), Couch said, “The Tribes have only added to the legal mess around water rights. Oklahoma City and the Trustees of the Water Utility Trust firmly believe that a State of Oklahoma plan to determine water rights through an established judicial process is the best way to fairly determine what rights the Nations actually have.
“Rather than relying on this judicial adjudication of water rights, the Nations are taking steps to create as many legal roadblocks as possible to delay the fair and just allocation of water. This latest legal maneuver makes even broader claims that threaten Oklahoma City’s ability to deliver water to more than 1,000,000 water users.”
Often left out of the discussion is an interested party with key interests in the situation. The Caddo Nation of Oklahoma has asserted aboriginal rights over some water resources in southeast Oklahoma. In response to questions from CapitolBeatOK, in September Brenda Shemayme Edwards, chairman of the Caddo, said:
“When you talk about southeast Oklahoma and aboriginal rights, the Caddo Nation predates any tribe, including the Choctaw and Chickasaw. So when these tribes filed a lawsuit over water rights to Southeastern Oklahoma, the Caddo Nation is concerned to say the least.
“While the Choctaw and Chickasaw are exerting their treaty rights, we will exert our aboriginal rights. The Caddo Nation has for decades consistently asserted our aboriginal rights to water over that area. Our aboriginal rights to that water predate any ‘fee simple’ rights that the Choctaw and Chickasaw claim because it is a substantiated fact that we were there first, and are an ‘indispensable party’ to any lawsuit they bring.
“The very word ‘Kiamichi’ is a Caddo word named for a place that has continued to have sacred relevance and interest to the Caddo Nation. Our place in this landscape is undeniable. We have repatriated ancestral human remains and funerary objects from the very lakes and river areas from which many in our state want to sell water.
“Water is a sacred source of life for the Caddo people and has always been important to Caddo traditions. Any prior litigation we’ve had with the United States or anyone regarding our claims to rights in those areas simply does not include our aboriginal rights to that water.
“It is time for lopsided negotiations to end within the state of Oklahoma. We believe that the only fair way to settle the water issues is for the federal trustee, the United States, to sit down at the table on behalf of all the tribal parties so that all tribes’ interests can be considered and determined fairly. This is a proven approach that has occurred in Arizona, Montana, and many other states and should be employed here in Oklahoma to expedite a resolution to the water issues for the benefit of all Oklahomans.”
After that statement appeared, Alex Weintz, a spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin, responded to request for comment from CapitolBeatOK. He said, “The governor has said that, moving forward, it is important for the state of Oklahoma and the tribes to have a productive conversation about water rights outside of the courtroom. Certainly the Caddo Nation will play an important role in that conversation. The governor is committed to working with them and other parties to pursue solutions that benefit all Oklahomans. She will continue to work in good faith to find common ground and resolution.”
Soon thereafter, Speaker of the House Kris Steele agreed that the “aboriginal rights”of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma are “certainly something to be considered” in planning and development. Steele stressed the state should not ignore tribal concerns from “any of the 39 federally recognized sovereign nations in Oklahoma.”