There’s great joy in paddling serene waters, watching the natural land and rock formations glide by, and looking for the wildlife that call the area home. I can’t avoid thinking about the history of the people that lived, hunted and fished the area for thousands of years before. Whenever I get into studying the history of Oklahoma, however, I find myself unavoidably hanging my head in shame. The lands of Oklahoma were given to the Indian tribes, or rather they were forced onto these lands. This was because of the belief as far back as Lewis and Clark, that the land was worthless and unsuited for habitation by the white man. When the emigrant populations continued to push west, that view was changed, and for one reason or another, justification was found for confiscating the land back from the Indians. The Indians died on the trail while being forced to occupy the land, as many as 4,000 died on the Trail of Tears alone, and they died once on their new land because the food and supplies promised to them by the Federal government to start their new lives or get them through the first winter just never materialized. Then once they got settled, the land has systematically been stolen back from them.
When planning for a local paddling trip, I looked at Dead Indian Lake. It apparently has had three names over the last decade---Dead Indian, Dead Warrior, and Black Kettle. Of course there are no natural lakes in Oklahoma, so the name originally applied to the creek that was dammed. It was originally given the name Dead Indian because a Cheyenne burial site was discovered by the first settlers among the cottonwood trees by the creek. Coming into the age of political correctness, it was decided that wasn’t racially sensitive enough, so the Dead Indian was promoted to a Dead Warrior. Feeling that was still inappropriate, it is now the Black Kettle.
Another local example is that of Fort Reno, located about 30 miles west of Oklahoma City. In 1874, Army officers were directed to establish a staging area south of the Canadian River from which to dispatch patrols during the Indian Wars. Once the site became established as Fort Reno, the Federal government confiscated 9,500 acres of Cheyenne-Arapaho tribal land around the fort. As recently as 2000, when considering continued funding for an Oklahoma State University livestock research center there, Republican Senator Don Nickles incorporated language in the funding bill that would prohibit transfer of the land back to the Cheyenne-Arapaho because there was the belief that oil and natural gas may be under the land. (Source: Bill Moyers)
Similar battles are now taking place over Indian water rights. A lot of the state’s lakes are on tribal lands and under their ownership. In an effort to create a long-term water use plan, the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes tried for seventeen years to get the State of Oklahoma to join them in creating such a plan to meet the water needs of all Oklahomans, but the state was unresponsive. The tribes weren't claiming sole ownership of the waters of Sardis Lake, but only wanted to be recognized as co-owners so that state wouldn't be issuing water-use permits without consulting them. Even when Texas sued Oklahoma in 2007 for water usage, because they wanted the water downstream for Dallas and Ft. Worth, the state still dawdled. Finally, the tribes tried to force the state into joining them at the table to create a plan. Since water was becoming an issue for Oklahoma City, the tribes understood water-use would eventually have to come to a head. The state responded by suing the tribes for water rights, a response one person characterized as “swatting a gnat with a sledgehammer.” This is expected to lead to a ten-year court battle that will cost millions of dollars in legal costs. I wonder who will win this fight.