Caddo Nation of Oklahoma: aboriginal rights to water predate Choctaw and Chickasaw treaty rights

The Caddo Nation of Oklahoma is asserting aboriginal water rights in southeast Oklahoma. 

Responding to questions from CapitolBeatOK, Brenda Shemayme Edwards, chairman of the Caddo, said, “While the Choctaw and Chickasaw are exerting their treaty rights, we will exert our aboriginal rights.” Aboriginal rights pre-date treaties and other laws, and are viewed by some legal analysts as dispositive.

Edwards’ full statement follows: 

“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.”

CapitolBeatOK contacted the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, headquartered in Binger, seeking reaction to the filing last month — by the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes — of a federal lawsuit aiming to stop future sales or exports of southeast Oklahoma water without tribal consent. 

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said the lawsuit was “not helpful” to the state’s economic development efforts. The Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes warned in February that Oklahoma City’s development of water plans could lead to “complex federal law litigation.”