Patrick Spottedwolf's Letter to Barack Obama
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Published: 16-Jul-2015

NOTE: This is the text of Arapaho Chief Patrick Spottedwolf's letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to visit El Reno, Oklahoma on Thursday, July 16. Spottedwolf is also a member of the Legislature for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, representing Arapaho District 3. Previous stories on the president's visit to Oklahoma's Indian Country are available here and here.

The Honorable Barack H. Obama
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave, N.W.
Washington D.C. 20500
Re: Fort Reno

Dear Mr. President:

On July 16, 2015 you are scheduled to visit the Federal Reformatory in El Reno. Oklahoma. During this visit in which you are slated to meet with prison officials regarding prison reform, I ask that you also visit with traditional leaders of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes just across the road from the reformatory on historic Fort Reno. We ask that fulfill the Clinton Administration and the Resolution of the National Congress of American Indians to honor to return Fort Reno to the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes.

In view of the U.S. Government’s obstructive role in returning the land to its rightful keepers, I would like to provide a timeline of key events related to the Fort Reno land issue.

The boundaries of the original Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation in western Oklahoma were established by Executive Order in 1869 (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes v. Oklahoma, 618 F.2d 665 (10th Cir. 1980). Fort Reno consisted of 9,500 acres that were carved out of this Reservation in 1883 for “military purposes exclusively,” with the understanding that the Tribes would have the land returned to them when it was no longer needed for the stated purposes (Executive Order July 17, 1883, I.C. Kappler, Indian Affairs, Laws and Treaties 842 (1904)).

In 1890, the Tribes ceded, “subject to ... individual allotments ... and ... conditions,” their interest in the 1869 reservation lands (Act of Congress, March 3, 1891, 26 Stat. 989, at 1022; Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes v. Oklahoma, 618 F.2d 665 (10th Cri. 1980)). Fort Reno was not included in this cession (Memorandum, John Leshy, Department of Interior, 26 February 1999).

In 1937, one thousand acres in the southeast corner of the Fort Reno lands were transferred to the Justice Department for a prison facility (Act of Congress, May 24, 1937, Public Law 75-103).

In 1946, Congress formed the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) for the purpose of addressing claims of land lost prior to August 13, 1946 (25 USCA, sec. 70a). Because Fort Reno was still occupied by the military at that time and Cheyenne-Arapaho tribes expected the land to be returned, the ICC did not have authority to entertain claims regarding it (Memorandum, John Leshy, Department of Interior, 26 February 1999).

In 1948, the Army closed its remount station and transferred the remaining 8,500 acres of military-owned land to the Department of Agriculture. Then, in order to continue ‘military’ use of the land, Agriculture executed an agreement with the U.S. Foreign Aid Service to train several thousand mules for use in Greece and Turkey. These actions occurred abruptly and without the knowledge of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes. Had hearings been held prior to the transfer and agreement, the Tribes’ claim could have effectively ended the military use of the land, thus providing clear grounds for its return (Act of Congress, April 21, 1948, 62 Stat. 197, Public Law 80-494). In 1951, Agriculture extended the agreement with the Foreign Aid Service fr an additional three years.

In 1949 and 1951, Congressman Toby Morris introduced legislation to return the 7,000 acres over to the Tribes. This legislation passed the House but died in the Senate.

In 1954, after six years of use by the U.S. Foreign Aid Service and dozens of local hearings on the Tribes’ claim to the property, the military once again set the property aside for “possible military use” for operations in Indo-China. Furthermore, it deemed “classified” the agreements between agriculture and the military. This effectively created a perpetual “stand-by military status,” that could only be changed at the sole discretion of the military. The documents related to the military’s 1954 action remained classified until 2005. Later documents are still classified.

Nine years later, in 1963, the Secretary of the Interior transferred another 1500 acres of the Ft. Reno land to the Department of Justice to expand the Prison facilities that were originally established in 1937. It is important to note that, at this time, the General Land Office tract index still recognized the efficacy of the 1883 executive order pertaining to the return of the Fort Reno property to the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes (Executive Order 10355 pursuant to 43 U.S.C.A. sec. 141). In 1965, the Tribes settled a $15 million compromise claim for the lands that were “unconscionably” ceded in 1890. Again, the Fort Reno land was not included in the negotiations (Findings of Fact on Compromise Settlement, 16 Ind.Cl.Comm. 162; Memorandum, John Leshy, Department of Interior, 26 February 1999).

In 1975, the Federal Surplus Property and Administrative Services Act (FSPASA) was amended to provide that any property within original reservation boundaries declared to be “excess” to the needs of a specific agency was to be returned to the Department of Interior in trust for the Tribes. The Tribes were encouraged by this development and recognized the possibility that these lands would eventually be declared a surplus.

In 1994, because the property was declared “redundant, outdated and duplicative” by the Congressional Research Service and USDA, the Clinton Administration proposed to close the USDA research station located on Fort Reno in the FY 95 and FY 96 budgets and declare the property “excess” under the FSPASA. Unfortunately, members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation blocked this measure by funding the USDA facility in order to keep it open.

In 1999, the Department of Interior issued a legal opinion that recognized the Tribes’ arguments concerning Fort Reno as “credible and equitable, if not judicially cognizable.” The memorandum concluded that the Tribes should have known about their claim to the land in 1948 and, therefore, the 12-year statute of limitations had long passed to bring a claim about the land (Memorandum, John Leshy, Department of Interior, 26 February 1999).

Following this memorandum, Senator Nickles (R-OK) included a rider on the FY 2000 agriculture appropriations bill to prevent the transfer of the land under the FSPASA. The same language was again added to the FY 2001 agriculture appropriations bill. In 2002, a provision was included in the Farm Bill prohibiting the return of the property under the FSPASA for five years (H.R. 6124, title 7, section 7502). Similar language was again included in the 2008 Farm bill, which was passed by the Senate after a Presidential veto.

Matters were further complicated by S. 1832 in 2006, which would have effectively stripped the minerals out of Fort Reno and opened the land for development. Furthermore, it would have redirected federal mine lease revenue and royalties toward funding the USDA facility and for historic preservation of the buildings on the site. The Tribes, recognizing the potential loss of a major portion of the mineral estate of Fort Reno, fought and defeated the bill.

At the same time, in the spring of 2006, the Tribes filed a Quiet Title Action against the United States in D.C. federal court concerning the matter. This process uncovered a series of “classified documents” that indicated that Fort Reno may still be in military status. The D.C. Court of Appeals [actually the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit], in line with the DOI legal opinion of February 1999, ruled that the claim could not be brought against the United States in court because of the twelve-year statute of limitations contained in the Quiet Title Act.

As you can appreciate, 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. Thank you for your attention to the matter and your support of Native Americans.

Patrick Spottedwolf
Arapaho Chief

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