A Tribute Song: A Modern Warrior, Charles Surveyor sought Peace, Justice and Prosperity

Oklahoma City — So long as I retain consciousness, I will remember the names, and the stories, of Charles Surveyor and Archie Hoffman – Cheyenne & Arapaho leaders who deserve the respect of all Oklahomans, and all Americans who thirst for justice. 

Before their encounters with the white man, the Two Tribes – Cheyenne and Arapaho – wandered where, when and as they wished across the heartland of North America. (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/baboons-at-reno-and-dreams-of-justice-deferred) 

With the coming of white settlement to the Great Plains, in sometimes uneasy alliance, the Tribes settled on five million acres in the northwestern portion of what is now Oklahoma.

Pressure mounted to restrict their home area. Boundaries of a joint reservation were fashioned in an executive order during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869.

A subsequent executive order during the administration of President Chester A. Arthur, in 1883, reserved 9,500 acres of that reservation for “military purposes exclusively” – with an explicit proviso that if and when the U.S. military no longer needed the land, it would return to the tribes. Fort Reno was intended to protect both settlers and tribes, and in some ways it functioned as such.

At the time of individual allotments of Native land, in 1890, the reservation per se began to fade away. However, Fort Reno was not included in that cession. That last sentence is not a matter of historical interpretation, but of historical fact. (The land claim was explicitly recognized as recently as 1999, when John Leshy, a Department of Interior [DOI] officer, analyzed the course of events and accumulation of precedents touching the area at and around the fort.)

For modern Americans, the last nine decades of this story must be kept in collective memory, not rubbed out or blown away because the Two Tribes are small compared to other players in Indian Country. A sketch follows. 

In 1937, 1,000 acres of additional Fort Reno lands were transferred to what became the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in the U.S. Department of Justice.
When the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) studied Native land claims in 1946, the fort lands were still in military use, so commissioners took no action concerning the facility (by then an Army “remount” station).

In 1948, with Fort Reno no longer needed and scheduled for phaseout, approximately 8,500 acres were “transferred” to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In some ways, that dubious shift was the key moment in the U.S. government’s apparent intentions to prevent the land from returning to the Two Tribes, despite treaties and President Grant’s order of 1869.

As a flimsy way to retain “military” land use, the Agriculture Department contracted with the U.S. Foreign Aid Service to train mules for use in Greece and Turkey. The Two Tribes did not have an opportunity to inject their land claim anew, as the shift took place without congressional hearings.
Then, in 1951, the “new” use of the land was extended for three years.

In 1954, the military shifted gears again, saying it needed the land for training linked to American involvement in Indo-China. As part of that shift, documents relating to the Army-Agriculture discussions and memorandums over the land were “locked up” in classified status. Although some of those documents were declassified in 2005, the remainder have stayed largely out out of public view. This year, the Department of the Interior answered a long-pending open records from request submitted by CapitolBeatOK. While those documents had fresh nuggets, nothing startling emerged.  

In the 1960’s, DOI and the General Land Office still recognized the “efficacy” of the original executive orders. In 1965, when the tribes reached a $15 million settlement over lands ceded in 1890, the Fort Reno lands were not included in the accord – meaning the land claim remained active.

In 1975, hopes for eventual justice renewed when the Federal Surplus Property and Administrative Services Act was revised to provide that property within original Native reservation boundaries, if found to be “excess” for an agency’s needs, were to return to DOI, in trust for tribes. This significantly bolstered hopes concerning the return of Fort Reno lands to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. 

Time passed, but in the Clinton administration era there emerged real reasons to believe the land would be restored to its rightful owners.

A White House Meeting

In one fateful meeting, President Bill Clinton appeared to all-but-promise that would be the outcome (in more than one accounting of the session). Which brings us back to Charles Surveyor and Archie Hoffman. 

Hoffman, and no doubt Surveyor, had concluded long before the Clinton presidency that “You don’t get something for nothing. Not in this world.” (https://capitolbeatok.worldsecuresystems.com/reports/a-leader-a-dreamer-and-a-doer-archie-hoffman-sought-return-of-cheyenne-arapaho-lands) 
Hoffman said at the time he had noticed the increasing clout of the Cherokee tribe and its leaders – influence garnered in part from significant campaign contributions to both major political parties.
He and other leaders of Oklahoma’s smaller Indian Nations were frustrated by the ability of the larger tribes to leverage sovereign rights, leavened with those significant political gifts, to gain local and national market advantages.

Hoffman hoped adding political money to the merits of the Two Tribes’ case would open doors. A promised 1996 contribution of $100,000 to the national Democrats’ drive for Bill Clinton’s reelection was supposed to grease the skids to get a serious look at the issue, a consistent dream of the Cheyenne & Arapaho throughout their post-treaty unified era.

In a meeting with the president as the contribution was put together in June of that year, one of Hoffman’s close allies later said, Clinton affirmed “something to the effect” of “I’ll see what can be done about it.” As for Charles Surveyor, he later recalled that Clinton fundraiser Terry McAuliffe promised “the president says he[‘s] gonna do something, he’s gonna do it.”

As for Fort Reno, over strong objections Surveyor signed the wire for the campaign pledges.
(Hoffman and allies in the Tribes were able to send $87,671.74 – all they had in their bank account. Later, the total contribution reached $107,671.74.)
When Clinton/Gore campaign officials tried to press for even more, he went on television and in the newspapers to attack those he believed were trying to pressure the tribes. All this led to the Two Tribes getting the funds back (overnight fedex) – and millions of dollars worth of publicity for the cause of the return of Fort Reno. 
The exercise did lead the administration to address the issue legally, in part. (In February 1999, the government issued an opinion stating that tribe had never been paid for the property and should have gotten it back in 1948 after the military left.) 

Even though Vice President Al Gore reportedly backed the cause, return of the land never happened. Along the way, Terry McAuliffe denied to reporters he had ever made the promise on President Clinton’s behalf.

Senator Fred Thompson, who led a lengthy investigation of campaign finance, concluded, with some sympathy for the tribes, “We know what was in the minds of the men from the tribe. And that is they thought that they had done themselves some good.” The C&A contribution, and other 1996 issues, became fodder for Thompson’s investigation.  In Congress steps were taken to put mechanisms in place that have thus far prevented return of the land.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. ruled the Tribes’ claim was time-barred, even though the tribes entered evidence that legal status of the property had been deemed classified for fifty years after having been placed on standby military status in the 1950s.

The courts have never really ruled on the merits of the Cheyenne & Arapaho claim to the former fort – a claim supported in U.S. Interior Department briefs through several administrations, but opposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thus, the issue of clouded title is still outstanding.  The Two Tribes have slow-played efforts over the past couple of decades. Tension remains around title to the land, and the use of the property. Development of the mineral rights and other matters remain sources of disagreement. 

Don’t stop Believing

Archie Hoffman never stopped advancing the rights of his people. Just a few weeks before his death in 2012, he appeared before a federal commission. He was still dreaming, and still  believing, that one day the Cheyenne & Arapaho would gain justice from the United States.

Recently, a Washington, D.C. man named Mike Copperthite (an old ally of Archie and Charles) recirculated a New York Time story (August 12, 1997) about that White House meeting. The lengthy account by reporter Don Van Natta Jr. incorporates the Hoffman and Surveyor versions of what transpired. 
(Brief background: If he was an Oklahoman, Copperthite would be called a “yellow dog” Democrat. He was active, as a key player, in both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.) A Washington Post story from the same era, written by Susan Schmitt, documented ways in which, even after their major contribution, the Two Tribes were dunned (along with others) for further contributions.
Both of the newspaper reporters included in their reports comments that rejected contentions of the tribal leaders. 

After the Controversy

For his part, Surveyor continued to work on practical, methodical steps to improve life for members of the Two Tribes. He approved and developed newer forms of gaming (electronic bingo and blackjack, for example) that improved the margin and helped make the Lucky Star Casino viable for many years. But as the U.S. Department of the Interior remained closely linked to larger tribal entities, the Big Guys got reaped most of the benefits in what is now a $4.2 billion industry. 

Despite the hopes of Hoffman and Surveyor, members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation – this includes elected officials in both political parties – have for the most part over the last three decades sustained the long march away from those Nineteenth Century executive orders.

Legislation has at various times forbade the land’s designation as “surplus” federal property subject to restoration for the Tribes. President Clinton, weakened by various scandals, never seriously pursued the promised return of the lands during his second term despite the finding the Tribe had been mistreated for decades.

As the years had passed, an Agriculture Research Service (ARS) facility was developed on the Fort Reno lands. (This reporter sketched that story, and the OU Baboon Research facility that was in in the news, in a couple of reports earlier in this decade.)

Although the facility was declared “redundant, outdated and duplicative,” and was the subject of still-legendary ABC News “Your Money” segment in December 1995, it clung to existence.

In 1999, at the time of the famous Leshy Memo, DOI (Department of the Interior) recognized tribal claims to the land as “credible and equitable, if not judicially cognizable.” However, the government succeeded in court when it asserted an interpretation that the Tribes had missed a 12-year statute of limitations — the clock for which had begun to run in 1948, according to the bureaucrats — and had thus lost their chance to get the area back under Native control.

As decades passed, the ARS facility developed a small but apparently powerful constituency. Its name changed a few times. And, important to remember: Early in the present century, the land at Fort Reno was included in Farm Bill strictures aiming to stretching out the ban on designation as surplus lands for years at a time. This process that has continued to the present day.

Tipping the hand of some in this historical drama, in 2005-06, attempts were made to pull mineral rights (oil, natural gas, etc.) out of the Reno reservation while opening it for development.
The Tribes and allies successfully opposed these efforts, but the battle continued.

In recent years, congressional and other maneuvers have continued to keep the Fort Reno lands from entering the legal status needed to give final meaning and resonance to the Nineteenth Century accords and the presidential decisions of Grant and Arthur.

In 2014, reporter David Rogers of Politico.com wrote about a joust touching Fort Reno’s status in that year’s farm bill: “Call it Cheyenne Autumn II: a century-old lands fight and modern political remake of the Western classic that began here as well as at Fort Reno, an old cavalry post in the Native American territory of Oklahoma.”

In 2015, Traditional Arapaho Chief Patrick Spottedwolf, also a member of the C&A Legislature, wrote to President Barack Obama:

“The Tribes have waited for the return of the Ft. Reno land for more than a century, without receiving any compensation or ceding their claim for it. The federal government, which is still holding the land for its own purposes, has yet to fulfill its promise.

“I can assure you that, upon receipt of the land, my people will participate in and actively support development initiatives as long as they can be conducted in an environmentally sound way and will protect the precious historic and cultural resources of the land. These initiatives include preservation of the existing military facilities, energy development and partnerships to continue local research.”

Some, including this writer, hoped Obama would revisit the issue during his swing through the state that summer, laying the basis for the land to revert to those who still are its proper owners.

However, that trip came and went without any official action, or even a quiet meeting with tribal activists. 

As was the case for his friend Archie, who was gone ahead by then, Charles never gave up hope, and neither should any of us. Surveyor lived a long and productive life, including a stint as mayor of Canton, and remained involved in tribal and local affairs. 

The End of the Story — or the Beginning?

Elmer Charles “Devil” Surveyor, Jr., born June 26, 1950 at Clinton, died here in Oklahoma City on May 12, at the age of 68. 
His wife Renee and four children survive him, as do brothers, sisters, grandchildren, cousins and a lifetime of friends.
For final rites, communal remembrances and burial, his body went home. Overnight on May 15 and 16, the people held a traditional all-night wake in the Canton Native American Gymnasium. 
The funeral service came at 1 p.m. in the Canton School Multi-Purpose Building with Coach Rob Davis and Reverend George Akeen, Jr. officiating. (https://www.piercefuneralhomes.com/obituary/charles-surveyor?fh_id=13427) 
When mourners moved to the cemetery, where blended traditions completed his honors. 
“Taps” was played as veterans and others saluted. A mournful drum song was sung. 
American flags snapped in the breeze near his coffin. Two men (one in “camos”) folded the U.S. flag into the triangle familiar to the children of veterans, then gave it to the family. 

The western Oklahoma wind blew across the ancient lands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes that day, as it does most of the time. 
At the end of a long, unusually wet and sometimes cool spring, it was both windy and warm as they lowered the earthly remains of Charles Surveyor into the ground. 

Those of us who admired and respected Surveyor will remember him, and his old warrior comrade Archie Hoffman. 
Their dreams of justice and restitution – in the simple form of promises fulfilled – will remain. To enliven and sustain hopes for a better future it falls on we, the living, to keep some promises.   

NOTE: A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, McGuigan has written frequently on issues in Indian County, and on legal policy. His reports on the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and their struggle to regain the land at and around old Fort Reno previously won first place designation from the Society of Professional Journalists (Oklahoma Pro Chapter) in the Diversity Reporting category.