Osage Nation highlights federal visit

Pawhuska Journal-Capital

The Osage Nation announced May 19 that it recently hosted a U.S. Department of the Interior water rights assessment team in order to help the United States better understand the nature and extent of the ON's water rights claims.

The Osage Nation said the focus of the visit was to provide the federal team an “on-the-ground“ understanding of the ON’s claims arising from treaties between the Osage Nation and the United States, the purchase of the territory from the Cherokee Nation in 1872, as well as the 1906 Act. The ON said it took the opportunity to demonstrate its agricultural, commercial and industrial needs, as well as the concrete steps the Nation has made in protecting its water rights. The ON said these steps include:

The preparation of an in–depth engineering analysis of the Nation’s current and future water needs and the sources of water to supply those needs;

Negotiating valuable capacity in the Enid pipeline to deliver water to the Nation at a future date;

And limiting the ability to export water from the Arkansas River basin in order to protect the Nation’s claims.

The Osage Nation said in a news release that water rights are key to the Nation’s sovereignty and the future of its members. The ON said it will defend against any attempt by the state or others to interfere with that sovereignty.

The Osage Nation, in its news release, offered the following description of the recent history of events regarding its water rights claims -- In 2017, the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office sent the Osage Nation a cease and desist letter in regards to a water well permit granted by the Osage Nation's Environmental and Natural Resources Department. At the time, Osage County rancher Ford Drummond was chair of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. The Osage Nation Water Rights Team responded with urgency to the attack which goes to the heart of tribal sovereignty. The Osage Nation Water Rights Team includes expert water attorneys, the Office of the Osage Attorney General, engineers with decades of tribal water settlement knowledge, and key members of the Osage Nation Department of Natural Resources.

The ON said its Water Rights Team has been diligently and methodically developing the best strategy to protect the Nation’s water rights.

"As the fight for water rights recognition continues to grow, so will the Water Rights Team to include members from all branches of Osage Nation government," the Osage Nation said. "The team will continue to carefully defend water rights throughout Osage Nation territory." 

“Our water rights are under attack,” said Osage Nation Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear. “We will continue to defend ourselves. This is our water and we will protect it.”

Standing Bear is currently campaigning for a third four-year term as principal chief. The general election is June 6. His opponent, Joe Tillman, has also stated a position on the issue of water rights.

Tillman made the following statement about water rights in a Facebook post:

"This year the federal government appropriated $2.5 billion to implement the Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund. 16 tribes are slated to receive funding for their claims, but under Standing Bear’s leadership we will not receive funding because the Osage has made no formal claim.

"How many times will we believe Standing Bear’s tired campaign rhetoric about being the only candidate qualified to lead the water rights battle? The Osage should not be behind the curve when it comes to our most precious resource.

"When elected, I will reinstate the Water Rights Task Force and implement a strategy to secure Osage water rights with the help of experts. My leadership means that we will protect our resources and build a secure future."

The Osage Nation said that, during the recent federal tour, ON Attorney General Clint Patterson and the ON's Water Rights Team showed the federal assessment team the key communities, resources and economic activities that bear on the Osage Nation's water rights claim including Kaw Lake, the Arkansas River, the Osage Nation Ranch, Harvest Land, and the Osage Nation Villages. The Osage Nation said each area has its own water needs, including usage, systems, and discharge – all of which are imperative to the ON's overall water plan. 

The Osage Nation said that Attorney General Patterson, who is tasked with upholding the constitutional duty to preserve the Osage Nation’s water resources, led the tour along with the Osage Nation Water Rights Team.

“The Osage Nation has full authority over the Nation’s natural resources,” ON Attorney General Patterson said. “Our water rights are backed by treaties and supported by well-settled water law. We appreciate the federal assessment team’s focus on our water rights and visit to the Osage Nation Reservation to better understand our issues as we work together to address  the Nation’s claims.”