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Apache tribe's 'Erin Brockovich' (Part Three)

APACHE, Okla. - Emily Saupitty, now known as the Apache tribe's 'Erin Brockovich', has won the battle her mother and two of her cousins began over four decades ago. Soon after the first of the series of stories about the plight of the one-woman battle against big oil appeared in Indian Country Today, the Departments of Energy, Interior and other various federal agencies contacted Saupitty and her attorney Dennis Chappabitty to let them know that the courts have no jurisdiction; the oil companies have to pay back royalties to Saupitty and the landowners or face stiff fines and the possibility of paying three times the amount currently owed.

"Dennis Chappabitty, our attorney filed papers on Thursday morning, Jan. 29," Saupitty said in a telephone interview. "They state that there will be no deals and no room for negotiation, the oil companies are to pay the full amount owed or the government will see that they pay three times the amount owed plus penalties and interest."

Saupitty was scheduled to go to court after having papers filed against her as the Apache tribe's Tax Commissioner. But instead of having to show up in court, federal agencies suddenly began calling she said, after the story of her fight appeared in ICT.

"They told us what we knew all along," Saupitty said. "That it is the trust responsibility of the government to protect our rights. This morning I got a call from the Department of Energy Resources and basically confirmed that their responsibility is to stand up for the landowner's rights. They had explained what each agency's responsibility was and I asked them to make sure those agencies knew just that. This is what we have said all along, that the trust responsibilities to the landowners shouldn't be controlled by the state or the oil companies, but protected by the federal government."

Saupitty explained that what she and other landowners wanted was a solution, not to blame anyone. They were trying to get everyone who has benefited out of this situation to understand that she was not going to back down on her stance to look out for the rights of herself and other tribal members who have been ignored.

"There is a model now and everybody needs to understand what 'Trust' means," Saupitty said after the phone call from Washington, D.C. "I believe now we are all on the same page and everyone understands the situation fully."

Phone calls kept Saupitty busy throughout the day, but the biggest surprise of all was yet to come. Carl Calkofper, an independent geophysicist, had studied the documents and production from the area in question. New calculations from the federal government now put the amount owed to the landowners at over $1 billion. "It was much more than we originally expected," Saupitty said. "In taxes alone there is over $1 million owed by the oil companies and that is before interest and penalties."

Another bombshell dropped on the oil companies was a missing document that appeared. Magnum Hunter Resources, the oil company that was behind filing a lawsuit against Saupitty as tax commissioner may be facing a lawsuit themselves. "We found that they hadn't paid taxes since 1992 through the present time," Saupitty said.

Now armed with the missing parts of the puzzle and new evidence that Saupitty said she would disclose to ICT as soon as she is legally able to means landowners may see the full amount owed to them within the next week and a half.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see payments made to landowners by Monday or Tuesday of next week," she said. "What it comes down to is that they signed an agreement and the federal government is going to make sure that they stick to their word. If they are men of honor then they will honor the agreements they signed. If they don't the federal government may ask for three times the amount owed and we will ask for the stiffest penalties that can be enforced."

Contractually the federal government can ask for up to three times the amount owed if a contractor, in this case the oil companies, doesn't uphold their end of the contract. By taking the issue out of the court system and the State of Oklahoma and putting it into the hands of the federal government the oil companies Saupitty said have little recourse and will have to pay immediately or face even more charges and interest and penalties than they already owe the small group of landowners.

Magnum Hunter, Texaco and five other oil companies will have to now pay or face consequences of a much larger scope. "If they don't honor this agreement," Saupitty said. "They are going to find that leases not only in Indian country, but throughout the world may be in question. If they don't honor our leases, who is going to sign new ones with them and won't the ones who have current leases begin to question whether these companies are being honest with them?"

In a tearful voice, Saupitty expressed her gratitude to ICT for getting the story of their battle out to readers. "I know the Lord opened this door to us and I can't tell the editors how grateful I am for letting the people know what was happening here," she said. "And I think of my mother who tried so hard to leave her children and her children's children an inheritance and a legacy for the future. All of us have prayed so hard for so long and those who will be getting paid want to support churches and orphanages and take care of those around them. To all of us this proves that if you believe in the Lord and what is right, you will reap what you sow."

Next in the series: The battle isn't over with for Saupitty and others living in the area. Environmental issues now come to the forefront as the group again takes on big oil and the State of Oklahoma for damage to the land that has resulted in sickness and deaths among relatives and neighbors. Saupitty also reveals new evidence in the case exclusively to Indian Country Today.