COMMENTARY Will the farm bill include efforts to block return of Cheyenne and Arapaho lands in OK?

OKLAHOMA CITY – When Congress returns in the New Year, look for an effort to extend provisions in the Farm Bill (still awaiting reauthorization) to keep open what is now called the Grazing lands Research Laboratory in western Oklahoma.

The facility at historic Fort Reno has been designated for closure at times (and thereby deemed “excess property”), but congressional maneuvers have extended the life of the federal unit which conducts research done just as well or better elsewhere (including at the small town of Marshall in the northwestern part of the state).

In 1869, President U.S. Grant established the original boundaries of Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal lands in an executive order. Later, almost 10,000 acres for a fort was chiseled out in 1883 with an explicit understanding that the area would revert to the Tribes when no longer needed for the military (Executive Order July 17, 1883, I.C. Kappler, Indian Affairs, Laws and Treaties 842, 1904). When the tribes ultimately surrendered the bulk of their lands, Fort Reno was not included in the deed.

Over decades, portions of the fort lands were assigned to other uses, including a prison.

Fort Reno continued as a military installation until 1948, when the Army transferred the land to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That’s when the plot thickened. In 1949 and 1951, the House of Representatives passed legislation to return the 7,000 remaining “fort” acres to the tribes, but that died in the Senate. Ever since then, in varied ways, “Ag” and its allies have moved to keep the area away from the tribes.

State and national Indian groups long have supported the claims of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, but this is not merely a U.S. versus Tribes issue. In 1996, at a time it appeared the Clinton administration might restore tribal control and clear ownership, the United Methodist Church Conference supported the idea. 

However, Clinton slowed down after a couple of years hearings that included House and Senate probes into alleged “quid pro quo” promises (campaign gifts in return for restoration of the land) exchanged between administration officials and tribal leaders.

Almost two decades ago, ABC News concluded in a “Your Money” piece that continuance of the station at Fort Reno was a “form of national pork.” That was not merely an expression of journalistic opinion. The Congressional Research Service in 1994 (and the Agriculture Department did not disagree) deemed the facility “redundant, outdated and duplicative.”

Early in the new millennium, Senate-originated “riders” in the 2000-01 appropriations process barred any finding that would have allowed the land to return to the Tribes as a result of closure (and the “excess property” designation).

The tribes successfully fought a bill in 2006 that would have directed federal mineral lease revenue toward historic preservation of existing facilities. The tribes uncovered, in federal litigation, a long-standing U.S. government practice of classifying as national secrets various documents in order to obscure the land’s status. Even as a federal court found that Tribes has missed a statute of limitations claim (under the federal Quiet Title Act) the judges admitted that title to the land was clouded.

And now, the Farm could become a vehicle to perpetuate a discredited status quo, rather than allow an overdue and important step to uphold treaty provisions never abandoned by the two tribes.

All of which brings us, more or less, up to date.

On behalf of her peoples, Cheyenne and Arapaho Gov. Janice Prairie-Chief Boswell said last week the new effort in the U.S. House amounts to “hypocritical cynicism.”

In an email, she told Oklahoma Watchdog, “Fort Reno is all that is left of our original 51.6 million acre reservation. It was never ceded, settled for or otherwise conveyed. It should have been returned over a half century ago when the military (for which it was exclusively set aside in 1883) abandoned its use.

“But for the classification of documents surrounding the status of Fort Reno pursuant to the National Security Act in the 1950’s, the true status and the tribes legitimate claim to these lands would have been known to the public long ago. Even the courts, while dismissing the Tribes claim procedurally due to the 12 year Statute of Limitations, recognized that title to Fort Reno is clouded.”

Conservatives in the U.S. House often declare themselves defenders of “original intent” in construction of constitutional provisions, treaties and statutes. In this case, if they prove willing to do the right thing, they might find themselves aligned with many liberal brethren.

There is little confusing about the declarations made long ago by President Grant and evolved by those who followed him. And there’s nothing at all confusing about the issue avoidance that has characterized the last few decades of complicated (and secretive) maneuvering to avoid the meaning of those declarations.

It is clear the land right around Fort Reno was intended to be returned to the Cheyenne and Arapaho if ever the land ceased to be employed for “military purposes exclusively.”

The few thousand acres at and around historic Fort Reno belong to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. As a modest but meaningful step toward fulfillment of an ancient promise, and regardless of final action on the long-delayed Farm Bill, members of Congress should honor the doctrine of original intent.  
You may contact Pat at