Water divides Osage Nation, state

Chris Day |
Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear

Oklahoma may have another water rights dispute on its hands.

Last month, the Osage Nation Environmental and Natural Resources Department issued its first water well permit to Osage Skiatook Casino, which is located on federal trust land of the Osage Nation.

The permit surprised the state of Oklahoma, said Terri Watkins, communications director for Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter.

The Osage Nation had not communicated with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board or the Attorney General’s Office, Watkins said. The state agencies tried to contact the tribe after the permit was issued, but couldn’t reach anyone. The attorney general’s office had New Mexico law firm Modrall Sperling send a letter written by Maria O’Brien via Federal Express to Osage Nation Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear and Jann Hayman, director of the Osage Nation Environmental and Natural Resources Department on Sept. 29.

According to the letter, the Osage Nation Water Regulations are unlawful because they claim the Osage Nation has jurisdiction over all of the water in Osage County based on the establishment of the Osage Reservation. It says Osage Nation vs. Irby disestablished the Osage Reservation in 2010.

According to the letter, the Osage Nation retains a limited mineral interest on former reservation lands, but does not include ownership or control of water as stated in the Osage Nation Water Regulations.

Modrall Sperling is the law firm the state of Oklahoma used to resolve a water rights dispute with the Choctaw Nation and Chickasaw Nations. That dispute was settled earlier this year.

“The settlement represents a successful collaboration effort by the State and Those Nations to harmonize the Nations claims to water while ensuring continued unified State permitting and administrative authority with regard to water,” O’Brien wrote in the letter.

The settlement also preserves and protects the waters of southeastern Oklahoma in a way that benefits the nations and the state, according to the letter

Watkins said the tribe and state officials talked after the letter was sent. A spokesperson for the Osage Nation said Hunter and Standing Bear have talked and will be meeting in person soon.

Standing Bear said the Osage Nation disagrees with the letter’s opinion about the tribe’s water regulations.

“It is of no consequence to us,” Standing Bear said. “The Osage Nation has issued a valid permit to the Osage Nation Gaming Enterprise, which is located on the Nation’s land, and the water that is authorized to take will be used pursuant to that permit.”

The Osage Nation, Standing Bear said, maintains a robust and federally recognized sovereign authority over its lands and resources. The Osage Nation long pre-dates the State of Oklahoma and is not controlled by the state or its attorney general.

“What really puzzles me about the letter is Attorney General Hunter’s decision to communicate with me through an out-of-state law firm. He should feel free to pick up the telephone and give me a call. I’m not hard to reach,” Standing Bear said.

Standing Bear said the Osage believe the United States Congress protected the Osage mineral estate by federal law in 1906 and no amendments ever changed the status. The Osage believe water also is protected because it is often essential to the production of oil.

“We believe that this is our water, and we will defend our property,” Standing Bear said.

Standing Bear said the letter shows the attorney general recognizes Oklahoma must reckon with the Osage Nation, and wants to begin discussions with the Nation.

“We are willing to speak with Oklahoma on a government-to-government basis. Attorney letters like the one we received are unnecessary and unhelpful,” Standing Bear said.

The Osage Nation purchased its land, comprised of 1.5 million acres, in 1872, using its own money. Although the Osage Nation possesses water and mineral rights, its goal is to seek collaborative solutions with its neighbors, Standing Bear said.