The 23rd Annual Sovereignty Symposium is June 2 and 3 at the Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City. This year’s title is “As Long as the Grass Grows and the Rivers Flow.” From the title “sovereignty” appears to be an “Indian thing.” I really haven’t understood it, but lately “cowboys” have been talking about sovereignty, and I am beginning to understand.
My family has raised cattle in the Cherokee Strip for more than a hundred years. Our history is only clear back to September 16, 1893 when a land run opened the Cherokee Strip to settlement by immigrants. A short time later, my great grandpa came down from Nebraska and homesteaded 160 acres which was then granted to him by the U.S. government. We celebrate that beginning every year with a parade, picnic, carnival and such. Beyond that, our history is kind of fuzzy. If we went back any further we would have to address the U.S. government’s propensity to take back what it has given. Before the U.S. government assigned the land to my great grandfather it had assigned the same land to the Cherokee and then took it back. Officially, the U.S. took back the land to punish the Cherokee Nation for siding with the Confederacy. Most of the land of most of the other native American people were taken from them as well, for one reason or another.
Our brief view of history makes things simpler. We appreciate that the U.S. government secured the land and assigned it to my great grandpa. It is easy to forget there was anyone here before, because they left no marks on the land. There is nothing to remind us that before the U.S. gave the land to us, it had given it to the Cherokee and then took it back. From time to time, the government uses the power of eminent domain to take a piece of private property here or there for roads, highways and utilities, but that is a fair sacrifice for the common good. Cowboys even accept the use of eminent domain by private pipeline companies that carry oil and gas produced from the land. By this brief reckoning of history, generations of cowboys have been proud and confident that our land is private property held by free citizens of a democratic republic. We are the people in “we the people.” We are the government and our government is sovereign. Our property can be taken only for public purposes and then only with the approval of citizens through a democratic process.
Five years ago things started getting a little weird. In 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court said that eminent domain could be used to take property for “economic development.” In other words, under the United States Constitution the government can take your land and give to someone else because they want to use it for a business that the government likes. Government taking your land because someone else wants it was surprising to cowboys. From the Indian perspective, this cowboy ignorance must be sadly amusing. Native Americans know a long history of such action by the federal government. They also know that cowboys are too far removed from U.S. government to protect themselves from it. They may expect that U.S. government will enrich itself at the expense of cowboys in the same way it enriched itself at the expense of Indians. Like the movie “Dances With Wolves” turned sideways the cowboys may not realize the power or the intent of the federal government until it is too late.
Today’s episode of this story is about the U.S. government giving a Canadian company, TransCanada permission to build a pipeline to haul Canadian Tar Sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It is coming through Oklahoma taking land from Oklahomans — native and non-native alike. The cowboys and the Indians are in the same position. Their land received through the generations is being taken because the U.S. government thinks it is better to use the land to build a 36 inch pipeline to carry foreign oil. Promises of powerful global energy interests are trying to persuade the U.S. government that it will be richer if it takes land from its citizens and gives it to a Canadian company to build a pipeline to carry foreign Tar Sands Crude, the dirtiest oil on the planet, to the Gulf of Mexico.
Now the cowboys are starting to talk about this thing called “sovereignty.” They don’t want the use of their land dictated by a dinstant federal government that is influenced by foreign business interests. They want people who live on the land to be free and self-governing. They want the U.S. government to abide by the agreements that were made hundreds of years ago. They want to be secure in their property and their land for the foreseeable future or “as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.” The cowboys have a few things to learn