Baboons at Reno, and dreams of justice deferred

(Part 2 of a two-part Analysis)

OKLAHOMA CITY – 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.

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.)

Here’s a summary of the past 78 years in this sad story.

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 the Grant 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, 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 out out of public view to this day.

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.

At the time, this significantly bolstered hopes concerning the return of Fort Reno lands to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. More time passed, but in the Clinton administration era there emerged real reasons to believe the land would be restored to its rightful owners.

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).

Pursuing hints from within the Clinton inner circle, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes made contributions to Clinton’s reelection campaign.

The late Archie Hoffman, disappointed in that and other instances, was a hero who pressed for justice for the Tribes throughout his life. His story has been the focus of prior analyses for CapitolBeatOK, The City Sentinel newspaper and other news organizations.
Despite Hoffman’s hopes, members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation – this includes elected officials in both political parties – sustained their long march away from the 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, deeply weakened by various scandals, never seriously pursued the promised return of the lands during his second term.

As the years had passed, an Agriculture Research Service (ARS) facility was developed on the Fort Reno lands. (I sketched that story, and the OU Baboon Research facility recently in the news, in part one of this two-part series.)

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 has clung to existence.

In 1999, at the time of the famous Leshy Memo, DOI 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 has changed a few times.

And, 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.

Two months ago, Traditional Arapaho Chief Patrick Spottedwolf, also a member of the current 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 of us hoped Obama would revisit the issue during his swing through the state this 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

It’s possible things fell apart because of larger events. Or perhaps Obama was hesitant because of the continued (and seemingly endless) turmoil among factions within the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. (His own Interior Department has been reluctant to recognize the most recent tribal election.)
So, the Never-ending Story continues.

To be absolutely clear: Those who have opposed returning of the promised lands have included member of both political parties. Advocates of justice, however delayed, have also been “players” from each of the parties.

Still, governance issues at the tribal level should not be a rationale for justice denied. After all, the feds maintain relations, cordial or otherwise, with states, cities and other governments, fulfilling commitments even when there are operational and other problems on one or all sides.

Whether examined for fiscal reasons or for long-delayed fulfillment of a reasonable pledge (giving a few thousand acres back to people who had lost millions), this debt is past due.

It’s time to do the right thing, both for fiscal prudence and for the sake of an old American ideal: keeping promises.