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Apache tribe's 'Erin Brockovich'

In an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today, a woman using her own money and time is fighting for the future of Apache tribal members. This is the first in a series of how one woman took on big oil companies, the State of Oklahoma and the Department of the Interior to make them keep the promises they had broken. Although the slow process of investigating has gone on for almost 40 years, the next few months may find that the tenacity of one family will make oil companies and governments accountable for breaking those promises, opening the way for thousands of others who had been cheated of land, royalties and benefits in the past 200years.

APACHE, Okla. - Emily Saupitty is seeking justice for a group of people who she believes have been cheated out of oil and gas royalties since the 1960s. Her battle is against several oil companies, at least seven of which she calls "major oil companies" that have become rich off Indian land, while many of the people living on the land barely survive. Saupitty has taken over where her recently-deceased mother left off in the battle, but as she has worked to untangle the web of paperwork and questionable business dealings she has found that more than just the $8 million in unpaid royalties is at stake; there is also the cancer and lupus clusters which are slowly killing her relatives and neighbors. A reality that goes back to oil and gas leases forced on tribal members in the early part of the 20th century.

One of Saupitty's cousins, Millie Tapedo of Lawrence, Kan. has been knocking on doors for years, along with Saupitty's mother and another cousin, to find out why money owed to them for their gas and oil royalties continued to dwindle even during the oil boom of the 1980s.

"It started in 1932, the oil royalties," Tapedo remembered. "It was good because there was good money coming in. But over the years since my dad passed away, I became the heir to it. Since then I began to look into it, the contract that my dad signed, probably the same one that all of them signed around there, and there was no way that if a new owner comes in that you can do anything. You just inherit what he signed and that's it. The contract was a binding agreement that you can't change."

Tapedo was concerned that the people who signed the contracts weren't the ones who had negotiated them, a fact that has been backed up by documentation found by Saupitty. A law, which was in effect at the time the leases were signed, allowed agency superintendents to sign for minors and those believed to be incompetent.

"What I cannot understand," Saupitty said, "is that many minors had the government sign for them and yet their parents were alive. The parent's weren't all incompetent."

Checks, which were once $1,000 a month, are now worth less than the postage it costs to send them.

"I have seen checks for 32 cents and 64 cents come in," Saupitty said.

The records and documents she has collected show that at a minimum $8 million is owed to the 100 or so people she is representing and that is before interest and penalties. With the wide scope of oil and gas leases on trust land on the Kiowa/Comanche/Apache tribal land, the actual amount owed in royalties is estimated to be staggering.

"The land owners were supposed to get 12 percent," Saupitty said. "But they are getting less than 1 percent of that 12 percent. The government and the oil companies are getting all the rest, including the 11 percent left that the land owners were supposed to receive."

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As tax commissioner for the Apache tribe, Saupitty has used the same calculations as the government and the oil companies in coming to the $8 million figure, but her fight against the big oil companies is not being backed by all of the members of the business committee for the Apache tribe.

"Behind closed doors, the ones who own land tell me to keep fighting," she said. "But others are against it."

Saupitty believes in the traditional way in which tribal members looked out for one another. "Since the 1600s our people have looked out for one another, it has been making sure that your relatives and neighbors have enough to eat and are taken care of. But as we get younger tribal members coming into government positions we don't see that anymore."

Armed with the help of one attorney and a strong sense of justice, Saupitty has turned into the Apache 'Erin Brockovich'; a title she feels is very complementary.

"I only wish I had her phone number," Saupitty laughed. But the slight humor isn't far from the truth. She has actually tried to find Brockovich's phone number for assistance in the battle she is waging. What had once seemed to be simply a fight for money owed to tribal members is beginning to parallel the fight Brockovich fought because of the carelessness of an energy company in California.

All around Saupitty, cancers and cases of lupus are on the increase, a result she is working to prove was due to the carelessness of oil companies that forced oil out of the ground and let byproducts leech into water tables and flow down rivers and streams.

But Saupitty's lone voice against the injustices her people have suffered has begun to appear to make the oil companies she is going after nervous. She has been told by those she trusts to "watch her back" and that she is up against people who will "do anything." She has even had a lawsuit filed against her as the tax commissioner for the tribe by the very companies she is fighting against.

Saupitty said she can see through the lawsuit, but finds it difficult to understand why only she and not the tribe are being sued. She believes it may have something to do with the foreclosure she is serving against the oil companies at the end of this month. But she is not afraid to continue her battle, the stakes are too high for her to stop now and a promise to her mother before she passed away, along with a strong sense of responsibility for her relatives and neighbors has kept her going.

"Before my mother died she told me to finish this," Saupitty said simply.

Next in the series, the duplicity and behind the door dealing of the oil companies and the government of Oklahoma that took the federal government out of the loop as Saupitty continues to pull her case together as she begins foreclosure proceedings against the oil companies. Emily Saupitty can be reached at (582) 588-2596.