As President Obama visits Oklahoma Indian Country, it’s never too late for justice
Published: July 15th, 2015
OKLAHOMA CITY – When the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes ended their nomadic traditions, to reside on lands in western Oklahoma, they were – in treaty agreements with the U.S government – given protection in the form of a military installation at Fort Reno.
The protection was not entirely cynical on the part of the U.S. government. In many ways, after decades of warfare, the facility actually functioned much as had the earlier installation at Fort Towson in southeast Oklahoma.
There, in the decades before the Civil War, the U.S. soldiers were much more cognizant of armed incursions by white settlers in Arkansas than they were of any abuses by tribal members who had been resettled in the area.
Even as territorial lands in what is now Oklahoma were opened to settlement and development late in the Nineteenth Century, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal elders and representatives were promised that when the land at and around Fort Reno was no longer needed for American military purposes, it would revert to the Two Tribes.
Since at least the 1950s, the land has been in the daily custody of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A notoriously ineffectual and unnecessary research facility located there is among of thousands of examples of federal spending that is wasteful, and in this case fraudulent. (That is story for another day, perhaps.)
Over many decades, the tribes have sought to clarify the legal status of the land, to lay the basis for formal return of an area under federal control (not in private hands). Their efforts in the modern era included litigation.
In the latter, they were rebuffed not on the merits, but in application of a statute of limitations, which was apparently obscured by legal provisions of the National Security Act.
Before his death, the venerable tribal elder Archie Hoffman and others sought to regain the lands around Fort Reno.
It would require a book to go through all the maneuvering and mendacity surrounding this matter, but the bottom line involves proper control of an area in western Oklahoma which the U.S. government long ago promised would – if the facility ever stopped being a military installation – be relinquished.
Back in the 1990s, Hoffman, a U.S. military veteran, took note of the increasing clout of Oklahoma’s larger tribes – influence garnered in part from significant campaign contributions to both major political parties over the last few decades. He and other leaders of 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 was told political money — a tribal contribution of $100,000 to the national Democrats’ drive for President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection — would grease the skids for a look at the merits.
In a meeting with the president, one of Hoffman’s close allies later said, Clinton affirmed “something to the effect” of “I’ll see what can be done about it.” Hoffman’s friend, Charles Surveyor, later recalled that Clinton fundraiser Terry McAuliffe promised “the president says he[‘s] gonna do something, he’s gonna do it.”
After getting dunned by national Democrats, the Tribes sent $87,671.74 – all they had in their bank account. Later, the contribution reached $107,671.74, but McAuliffe denied to reporters he had ever made the promise on Clinton’s behalf.
Senator Fred Thompson, R-Tennessee, who later led a lengthy investigation of campaign finance, sympathetically concluded, “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.”
Rebuffed in the Clinton deal, the Tribes returned to the courts.
Several years ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. ruled the push for clarification of the tribal land claim was time-barred, although lawyers entered evidence that status of the property had been deemed “classified” for decades after the went on standby military status in the 1950’s.
Already in the public record are a variety of declassified materials that document the efforts of federal officials to withhold from public scrutiny the legal slights and insensitivity that preserved an unjust status quo.
The bottom line here is not confusing. To be exquisitely bipartisan, leaders of both political parties have over the last century and more contributed to this instance of justice delayed, if not denied.
For a long time the Oklahoma congressional power brokers were Democrats. More recently, they have been Republicans.
In 2013, President Barack Obama, a Democrate, met with hundreds of tribal leaders at the White House – including then-Lt. Gov. Amber Bighorse of the Cheyenne and Arapaho.
If the land is ever restored — and I believe it will be one day — complaints will come from members of both parties, yet I am confident that many patriotic Americans in both will support an overdue act of righteousness.
The area in question, near the city of El Reno, amounts to about 8,500 acres, and does not include the federal prison the president will visit on Thursday (July 16).
To this observer, at least, this fact seems noteworthy: Men (and recently, women) members of the Two Tribes have served voluntarily and honorably – and in high percentages — for the same military that defeated their ancestors many years ago.
These are Americans — fellow Americans and Oklahoman’s. They are part of us all.
In the 1970s, the Cherokees – one of the largest and most powerful Oklahoma tribes – were right to litigate for their dredging and other rights in the bed of the Arkansas River.
As a young commentator for The Daily O’Collegian at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, I supported their legal position, as a matter of both property rights and treaty enforcement under federal law.
And, I support the just aspirations of the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples.
To be clear, to say this is not to endorse the current government of the Two Tribes, but the aspirations of the members of the tribes.
In the core of American idealism and aspirations are beliefs that justice ought to be rendered both to rich and poor, to the powerful and to the weak.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma have waited, at times impatiently, for return of lands no longer required for essential federal purposes.
The details are just that – details that do not erode the underlying justice of the matter.
It is never too late for our nation’s leaders to do the right thing.
Barack Obama can and should do the right thing by the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.
Our nation should return to these law-abiding people a modest few thousand acres which are, by right and law, theirs.
It’s that simple, and that hard.
NOTE: This is adapted and updated from a commentary posted in November 2013 at CapitolBeatOK.com, an online news organization which McGuigan founded in 2009. A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, McGuigan writes frequently on issues touching Indian Country.