EL RENO — A decades-old dispute between the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and the federal government regarding ownership of old Fort Reno could be resolved this year. Absent unexpected delays, a federal judge in Washington will decide if the government wrongfully took about 7,000 acres of Cheyenne-Arapaho land surrounding the abandoned fort or if the tribes ceded all claims to the land and were compensated for it. With ownership comes the right to develop the land for shopping, offices and possibly a casino and to drill for known oil and gas reserves, Cheyenne-Arapaho Gov. Darrell Flyingman said. "It's valuable land. There's hundreds of oil and gas wells right around Fort Reno. That's one of the reasons they're trying to keep it,” Flyingman said.Comments
Development plannedAlready the tribes have shown the land to builders and developers, including a group from California and Washington, D.C., who toured it Wednesday. "We want to bring jobs to western Oklahoma — good-paying jobs,” Flyingman said. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, has different plans for the site. He co-sponsored a bill last session to authorize the Agriculture Department secretary to open the land to oil and gas exploration. "The bill simply allows USDA to lease the property, while at the same time allowing some of the funds from the leasing to be put toward renovating and maintaining the historic buildings at Fort Reno,” Inhofe said in a statement in November.
‘Big fight on our hands'The proposed Fort Reno Mineral Leasing Act died when the 109th Congress adjourned Dec. 9, but Flyingman suspects it will be re-introduced in the coming session. "We have a big fight on our hands. We're taking on the Oklahoma delegation plus the oil companies,” he said. The latest salvo in the legal battle came Friday, when the tribes' lawyers filed an 18-page response to the government's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. That document and others filed previously outline a case that spans more than 100 years, starting in 1869 when the Cheyenne-Arapaho were moved from Colorado onto 5 million acres west of Oklahoma City. "This whole thing is a motion picture. It's an epic adventure,” said Richard J. Grellner, the Oklahoma City lawyer representing the tribes in the lawsuit, filed March 20. Fourteen years after the tribes settled in Oklahoma, a presidential order whittled 9,000 acres off their reservation to create Fort Reno. The tribes believe the land was to revert to them when the government no longer needed it for military purposes. Fort Reno continued to serve the military for decades, keeping it out of the tribes' reach. When the cavalry abandoned the fort in 1908, it became a "remount station,” where horses and mules were raised and trained for the military. When the remount station closed in 1954, the government announced the property would be set aside for possible military use. James M. Upton, the Justice Department attorney representing the government, did not reply to messages seeking comment. In court documents, the government says the Cheyenne-Arapaho claim on the land died in 1891, when the reservation was allotted and the tribes signed an agreement ceding the remaining 400,000 acres, which then were opened to non-Indian settlement. The tribes say they never ceded the Fort Reno land and that the government remained bound to its promise to return it to them when no longer needed for military use. "It's our land. We never gave it up,” Flyingman said. The lawsuit also will resolve whether the tribes were paid for the land. The government says they were — twice. They got 2 cents an acre in 1891, then $15 million more in 1965 after filing a lawsuit under the Indian Claims Commission Act, designed to correct past injustices in land dealings with Indian tribes. The tribes say the payment covered the rest of the old reservation, excluding the Fort Reno land. Since 1948, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has operated a research station at Fort Reno and hosted Historic Fort Reno, a nonprofit organization that runs the old fort as a historic site. Should the tribes prevail, Flyingman said both will be invited to stay. "There's plenty of room for them and us,” he said.
Fort Reno timelineGovernment documents, some dating back to the late 19th century, tell this history of the disputed land: •1869: A presidential order created a 5-million-acre Cheyenne-Arapaho Reservation in western Oklahoma. •1883: Another presidential order withdrew 9,000 acres to be used for "military purposes exclusively,” leading to Fort Sill's creation. •1890: The tribes agreed to cede lands comprising the 1869 reservation except for what was allotted to individual tribal members. •1908: The cavalry abandoned Fort Sill, which continued to be used as a "remount station” to raise and train horses and mules for the military. •1948: The War Department transferred jurisdiction to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a research station, which still operates. Source: Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma vs. United States of America, Civil Action No. 06-519