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Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes fight for possession of Fort Reno lands

OKLAHOMA CITY - In Oklahoma's centennial year, the federal government's attempts to take and keep land from Oklahoma's Native tribes is still a reality to which the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma can attest.

In 1881, an executive order was issued from the White House that would borrow 10,000 acres from the Cheyenne-Arapaho to use as a part of Fort Reno, near present-day El Reno, Okla. When the military was through with this property, the land was supposed to revert back to the tribes for their use. In 1948, the U.S. military finished using the lands but instead, the U.S. Department of Agriculture took over the land for its Grazinglands Research Laboratory.

Recently, the Cheyenne-Arapaho have made an effort to re-obtain approximately 7,000 acres of these lands from the federal government to use in its future plans for economic development, which include a potential industrial park and an Indian World Trade Center.

''They're taking land that truthfully belongs to us,'' Cheyenne-Arapaho Gov. Darrell Flyingman said during a recent interview. ''They are blatantly stealing our land in 2006 and 2007. One thing that we need to keep in mind, too, is that the Anadarko Basin runs right through Fort Reno. There's a lot of oil and gas underneath. The large oil companies have a lot of say-so in trying to keep this land and keep it out of our hands.''

This past year, at least three different attempts were made in the U.S. Senate to authorize the secretary of Agriculture to lease the mineral rights to the oil and gas industry. Senate Bill 1832, which would have authorized this had it passed, was co-written by Sens. James Inhofe and Tom Coburn, both R-Okla. By Flyingman's estimation, half a billion barrels of oil lie beneath Fort Reno's surface, and the land is currently surrounded by oil wells.

''What's so disturbing about this bill is that they knew that we had a large interest in Fort Reno, and yet what they tried to do was sneak it through as a 'midnight rider,''' Flyingman said. ''We contacted them and asked why we weren't notified or why they did not have a consultation with us. They wouldn't respond to us.''

A hearing on this bill was scheduled to be held in March 2006, of which the tribes were not notified. The Cheyenne-Arapaho actually found out about the hearing over the Internet, according to Flyingman. He said that there was also no response to the letters he sent to the Department of the Interior on this issue. During the Senate's most recent lame-duck session, Flyingman said that another ''midnight rider'' was attempted and worded as authorization for Interior funding. Through meetings with key officials, the tribes found a way to halt the bill.

Over the past year, many U.S. congressmen, senators and National Congress of American Indians representatives have met with the Cheyenne-Arapaho and shown support. The majority of Oklahoma's congressional delegation has met with the Cheyenne-Arapaho and offered support as well. According to a Nov. 16 statement issued by the Cheyenne-Arapaho, they had received attention from Coburn, saying that he would review all of their documentation. Flyingman said out of the Oklahoma delegation, Inhofe was the only person who would not meet with the Cheyenne-Arapaho.

When asked specific questions regarding the Cheyenne

-Arapaho and Fort Reno, Coburn's office issued a

one-paragraph statement:

''It would be premature to comment on the future of the Fort Reno lands pending the outcome of litigation. I will continue to monitor this situation closely and have instructed my staff to maintain the close contact they've had with the Cheyenne-Arapaho leaders and the pertinent federal agencies. I will give this issue my full attention just as I do with all constituent concerns.''

Inhofe's office did not respond by press time.

Currently, Flyingman said that a lot of the money the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes have has come from gaming. However, Flyingman and others in the tribes are working hard to diversify their revenues, and the tribes see Fort Reno as a way to not only reinvest in themselves, but also to partner with cities and towns within their tribal jurisdiction.

''Right now, our casinos are more or less supporting our tribe,'' Flyingman said. ''Casinos aren't going to be around forever, so we're going to have to diversify, go out and create businesses, and bring businesses into our tribe, so we can prepare the future for our children. I think that everyone that lives in our area should benefit from what we benefit from.''

When the history of Oklahoma is told, there is not always a focus on forced allotment, when reservations were split up into 160-acre plots with the excess going toward land runs for white settlement. Through the allotment of the Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation, the tribes lost 4.6 million acres of land. Although the tribes were awarded $15 million for that loss of land in 1965, they have the documentation to show they were never paid for the Fort Reno land. But Flyingman believes that the land will return to them by the end of this year. He is currently working to enlist, among others, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry to help the Cheyenne-Arapaho re-obtain Fort Reno during Oklahoma's centennial year.

''I'm a very optimistic person, and I think 2007 will be a very good year for the Cheyenne-Arapaho,'' Flyingman said. ''What better gift for the state of Oklahoma to give back to the Cheyenne-Arapaho 7,000 acres for the 4.6 million acres we gave away years ago.''