As water issues loom large, an Indian country voice reflects on news media relations

In Oklahoma, between the end of this legislative session and the start of the next, water policy will become one of the most “cussed and dis-cussed” issues facing the Sooner State and its diverse peoples. Every week that passes, the frequency of news stories about water policy and water plans (comprehensive or not) will grow more frequent. 

 In a panel discussion on changes in tribal reporting at last weekend’s Region 8 of the Society of Professional Journalists, the politics of water was a recurring theme. Water is of universal interest in a state where the present drought is devastating southwest Oklahoma wheat crops, and effecting life in every corner of the state. 

 On the panel where he shared time with Clifton Adcock of The Gazette and M. Scott Carter of The Journal Record, D.G. Smalling, an artist and member of the Choctaw tribe, touched frequently on water issues as an aspect of sovereignty, economic development in Indian Country and other issues. 

 In addition to his work as an artist, Smalling hosts an online program focused on issues of concern to “native people” and tribal governments.

 Smalling observed, “The future of the state is directly affected by our success.” While the federal government is the Oklahoma’s top employer and the state government is second, the next two largest employers are the varied operations of the Choctaws and the Cherokees. In fifth place is the Energy industry, he said.

 Unlike some businesses that might come and go, he said, “We are locked to this state. We have a geographic lock here.” He reflected on the dramatic rise of tribal economic power over the past 15 years, saying, “The cash is coming from gaming. Interestingly, that cash is relatively stable and not volatile like some entities.”

 When it comes to news media coverage of tribes, including debates over water rights, Smalling commented, “Sovereignty has become an excuse not to get involved in Indian country.” In his view, “This state has no rural future without us. Even the small tribes are having a huge impact.”

 As part of a candid exchange with reporters and college students preparing for careers in journalism, Smalling said, “Indian country is highly skeptical of the news media and of outsiders. That is justified, yet it’s only practical to connect with journalists.” He continued, “Certainly the press needs to do a better job. Also the tribes need to do a better job of working on ‘P.R.’ with the media.”

 The relationship should be a natural one. While there are 39 federally-recognized tribes in the state, there are dozens more with unrecognized status. Smalling says better understanding of the tribes and the people in them is a natural job for journalists. After all, “The state’s first newspapers were tribal newspapers.”

 In terms of simple economics, the clout and impact of the tribes are apparent. The Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association will soon sponsor the second largest gaming trade show in the world. Tribes are establishing nation-to-nation memoranda of understanding with nations around the world. In other areas, including tobacco sales and non-weapon defense contracting, tribal-operated businesses are major players. 

 When it comes to water, as an aspect of the entire question of state-tribal interaction, Smalling reflected, “There is no substitute for relationship, for relationships.” With studied understatement, he observed, “It would behoove journalists to understand the treaties/treaty process.” The various tribal governments are, he said, “sovereign nations going about our own interests.” 

 Turning his comments back on tribes, he commented, “self-effacement is prized by native peoples and tribes. There is a belief it is unseemly to toot your own horn.” In some ways that is changing: “We have our own, growing, media departments.”

 He continued, “I went to the dominant society’s schools, so I can talk about market share.” As “native market share” increases, “We want stability. We need stability.” This means finding common ground with state government is obviously desirable. Besides, “For every one native employed by the tribes, there are six-non-natives. That’s economic impact, my friends.” 

 In economic development terms as related to the tribes, there is a significant different between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. “Within the confines of Tulsa there are active tribal interests.” In Oklahoma City – where so many Indian people, including Smalling, live – there are no tribal lands, “so that makes the nature of relationship different.” 

 While not the main focus of Smalling’s comments to the SPJ members, some of the “background noise” in the engaging discussion touched on the nearing state deadline for a new, comprehensive look at water resources and public policy. In this matter, the state’s tribal governments, large and small, are certain to have important things to say, along with everyone else. 

 The Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) begins a series of “feedback and implementation” meetings on April 19 in Beaver, in the Panhandle.  

 The series of 13 meetings will conclude in Oklahoma City on May 26. Interim drafts of sections within the eventual the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan (OCWP) are just beginning to appear on the OWRB website.
 Saliency of the water issue for development of state-tribal relations, including inter-government compacts full of budget implications, was manifested in today’s editions of the state’s largest newspaper. John Estus of The Oklahoman reported on recent threats from attorneys for the Chickasaws and Choctaws to sue if Oklahoma City continues to develop plans for use of Sardis Lake water.
 Last year, Oklahoma City paid off debt for operation of Sardis Lake and began to lay plans to develop pipelines and other infrastructure needed to bring water to the state Capitol area, where demand for water is expected to exceed supply within 20 years. 

 In 2001, a study undertaken jointly by Choctaw and Chickasaw interests Oklahoma’s water supply was sufficient to engage proposed water transfer contracts, including inter-state water sales.