PAWNEE, Okla. – A rising battle over water rights for Oklahoma tribes loomed at a listening conference with Assistant Secretary of the BIA Larry EchoHawk Oct. 23 hosted by Pawnee Nation College.
The event drew more than 200 attendees and leaders from about 20 state tribes. EchoHawk, a Pawnee, told tribal leaders that he longed to put a new face on a federal-tribal system rife with inaction.
“It is not enough to be a good trustee, I want to be an agent for change.”
Concern over water rights heightened the all-day session that also covered land into trust, gaming and education issues. David Gover, of the Native American Rights Fund, acted as moderator for the water rights panel session.
Tribal positions on water rights sits low on the priorities list with the state of Oklahoma as it draws a new comprehensive water plan, panelists said. Some voiced a reluctant inclusion by the state towards tribes regarding water issues. But tribes are backed by treaties that solidify their interest, participants said.
Cheryl McClellan, second chief of the Sac and Fox Nation, said attendance in state-sponsored town hall meetings on the new water plan was far from real participation in drawing up a plan that would affect tribal and non-Indian residents of Oklahoma. Sitting in on these meetings was no substitute for government-to-government consultations, she said.
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board has scheduled area town hall meetings and taken public input from those meetings into consideration for the revised water plan. Further tribal participation in this process has not been solicited and tribal participation at this base level must be asserted, McClellan said.
“Even if they let us attend, we have no voice, our process is restricted.”
McClellan said the new water plan is not the same as a water rights document. Even with limited acknowledgment of Indian water rights, the state of Oklahoma cannot disregard states with the same attitudes from the 1970s when acknowledgment was nil, she said.
Meanwhile, other tribes acknowledged similar treatment.
Bill Anoatubby, Chickasaw Nation governor, sent a letter to Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry requesting inclusion in the water plan process and was referred to the town hall sessions sponsored by the state. The tribes want a place at the table, he said.
“The United States did not give Oklahoma rights over Indian lands and that carries over to water,” he said.
Oklahoma has 320 million acres of water within its borders, according to OWRB statistics. Of that water, the state counts 78,578 miles of rivers and streams and 1,120 square miles of water in its lakes and ponds.
Being included in the process means tribal leaders participate in the water planning process, and funds for hydrographic research and official notification by the state to tribal leaders outlining the state’s intentions on water. Asserting these steps is part of tribal sovereignty, officials said.
Likewise, tribes should prepare by compiling plans on their own domestic, industrial and commerical water use. Data should be gatherered, then tribal water consultation requests cannot be held lightly, panelists said.
“This has to be a higher priority to the tribes because water is life, life is water,” Gover said.
Other factors cloud the issue of water rights in a state with 37 federally recognized tribes, officials said.
Robert Tippeconnie, Comanche Nation secretary/treasurer, said circumstances are unique to Oklahoma and called the federal allotment process a “great sorrow,” for Indian people, who lost the majority of their vast lands since the federal government saddled Indians with individual land ownership more than 100 years ago.
While some lands were sold, much in western Oklahoma still remained under Indian ownership.
“Remember, each of you that owns land is supposed to be a farmer,” he said. “Because of it (allotment), water has become a predicament.”
Complexity arises when former allotment lands change status when bought by non-Indians. Also complicating the matter on allotment lands is fractionated land ownership on some plots where many come in on one allotment. The answer of ownership is not forfeited to the state in either case, officials said.
“We know what we have,” Tippeconnie said. “The issue of water is becoming gold.”
At one point, EchoHawk spoke to the immediate tribal concerns over water issues. He assured leaders that their voices are his priorities.
“Indian nations have a government-to-government relationship on rights regarding water.”
An evening round table meeting with registered tribal leaders was closed to the media.The Pawnee Nation also held an Honor Dance for EchoHawk Oct. 24 on tribal grounds.
Tribal leaders from Kansas recognized tribes also attended the listening session, including Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas.