ARKANSAS RIVERBED, SALE OR SELL-OUT? by David Cornsilk
I recently had the pleasure of reading the Arkansas Riverbed brochure and listening to a tape recording of Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller'sspeech before the employees of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma given May 19, 1994.
As usual, her talk was beautiful and filled to the brim with moving metaphors and other such verbal medicants that make her talks so
interesting to hear. However, the beauty of her message was soured by the content of her talk.
Our Chief told the employees that she will continue to work on the so-called, "Arkansas Riverbed Claims Settlement Act", to be introduced by State of Oklahoma Representative Mike Synar. Nicely packaged brochures were handed out to the employees giving them an overview of the proposed settlement and making it quite clear the decision to sell off our Riverbed is already made and no participation from the membership will be tolerated.
A letter to the Cherokee people graces the inside of page two. In this
letter Mankiller tells us, in a nutshell, the long history of our
struggle to prove the Arkansas Riverbed belongs to the Cherokee people.
talks about litigations, dashed negotiations and a general lack of
to get the job done or even know what the real job is.
What is really disturbing, but not surprising, about this letter is how
she describes our Riverbed. She says, "This settlement would trade
LAND for land of practical value". How could it be unusable if in other
of the brochure she tells us there are approximately 3,000 individuals
companies squatting on our land in just the first 28 miles of the river?
By unusable I assume she means she hasn't been able to make any money
off our Riverbed. Do we always have to be so concerned with money? What
about the plants and animals that live along and in our Riverbed?
we be stewards and offer our protection to our fellow earthlings who
cling to life as greedy developers destroy more and more of our natural
heritage? What about our children's future? They deserve to have
left to work with, or are we just going to sell it all now and answer
I'll bet those 3,000 people trespassing on our lands don't think the
land is unusable. They must be doing something of value on it or they
wouldn't be contacting Congressman Synar to push this settlement
Ah ha! It must be the political machinery that makes Mankiller so eager
to sell out the tribe and turn our Riverbed over to the State of
It would be interesting to see how many of those 3,000 trespassers have
calls to Synar and other representatives to push this settlement
while we're at it, see how many of them are wealthy due to their
on our Riverbed, and whether they are using their ill-gotten-gains to
through this vile settlement.
Mankiller says we will retain the mineral rights to the first 28 miles
of our Riverbed. This is very suspicious to me. First, we already own
mineral rights to the entire Riverbed, so they really aren't giving us
anything here. And why just the first 28 miles? If that holds the
potential, and the rest of the river holds the least potential, why not
the whole mineral right. One oil or gas well on the remaining 34-36 mile
section is better than none at all. If there is no great chance of
oil or gas, so what, it is ours!
Why didn't Mankiller mention tribal hunting and fishing rights in this
brochure? She sure made them a prominent part of previous literature.
it be that she has already sold them and just doesn't want us to know
There is no mention anywhere in the brochure of how much money we can
expect from this settlement. Several figures have been thrown out, such
$466 million,, $100 million, and so on. As the controversy of the sale
the Arkansas Riverbed heats up, I am sure we will se the figure rise. I
suspect there is a concerted effort on the part of our leaders to cover
the true amount. That way we never have to know what happened to all of
and the theft of our Nation is all sanitary and without a trace.
Mankiller tells us that she wants to use the cash we might get from our
Riverbed for land acquisition, tribal programs and long-term
She says, "Because regaining land taken at statehood is a priority,..."
Regaining tribal ownership of lands in Oklahoma has NEVER been a
priority of the Mankiller administration. With the pitiful growth in
land holdings during the Swimmer/Mankiller years, I don't see anyone
believing that the money from the Arkansas Riverbed settlement will be
to purchase our lands back. After Mankiller gets through with al of the
"compacting" she has done and will do with the State of Oklahoma,
lands won't be much different from any other lands. She is selling or
sovereignty to the state in exchange for a few dollars of cigarette tax
Even if the settlement amounted to nearly 100 million dollars, as we
have been told, Mankiller proposes to use only one third of it for land
purchases. After the federal government takes their cut, the tribal
takes his cut and the other two thirds are spirited away for "tribal
programs and long-term investments", we would be lucky to have any left
What would we do with this land anyway? Economic development? That's a
real joke. We already have large tracts of land, some of them developed
industrial parks, sitting virtually empty. Economic development to the
Mankiller administration means sucking down more and more federal
and creating more and more dependency for Cherokee people.
We learn from the brochure the U.S. Government plans to give us "other
federal lands" of equal value to the Arkansas Riverbed, I say there are
lands equal to the spiritual and national value of our Riverbed, even if
those lands are within the boundary of our Nation. We can always buy
we can never regain our Riverbed.
Mankiller makes a big deal of the fact that those lands would be placed
"in trust" like the other tribes land here in Oklahoma. That means that
turn those lands over to the United States and they hold them for our
and benefit. What good is that? We give them our Riverbed and then have to
turn around and deed them the land they just gave us. I'm starting to
What does it mean to have lands "in trust"? It simply means that those
lands are under total federal control and only those things the federal
government allows can occur there. Even things Native American tribes
usually allowed to do, may be restricted on land held "in trust". In
words, the Cherokee people become the wards of the Bureau of Indian
and must pander to government officials to develop our (?) lands.
The Cherokee Nation, prior to 1907 held tribal lands in common through
a fee simple title. Our lands were not in trust then and do not need to
now. Fee simple ownership of lands by the tribal government, within our
historic boundary, makes the land Cherokee country and Indian country.
In fact, all of the land inside our historic boundary is Cherokee
country and Indian country, whether the Cherokee Nation holds title to
not. The mere fact that we privatized the ownership of tribal lands
allotment does not restrict our right to jurisdiction and sovereignty
those lands. The Cherokees have never been stripped of territorial
diction within our boundary.
Does the United States give up the right to enforce its laws on the
vast land holdings of the Japanese in this country? It would be
say that land becomes a part of Japan when a Japanese citizen buys U.S.
property. The sovereignty of the tribes is no different. The private
ship of land in the Cherokee Nation, by non-Cherokees and Cherokees
does not restrict our sovereignty over those lands. The tribes have a
sovereignty above that of the states so how could our rights to
be any less than that of a lesser government?
Our treaties guarantee us the lands within our historic boundary, they
guarantee us that we may do as we wish with any white people (U.S.
who come among us and they guarantee us that no territory or state will
be extended around us.
Our tribal government is supreme within our boundary. The Mankiller
administration has simply chosen to bow to the wishes of the state of
Oklahoma in exchange for a high salary and the mother-load of federal
Mankiller tells us in her brochure that many of the "trespassers" on
our tribal lands along our Riverbed are Cherokees. I simply find that
to believe. And how, for heavens's sake, could a Cherokee be a
on Cherokee land? But in case it is true, there is a simple solution
would solve the problem for both the "trespassers" and the Cherokee
The Eastern Cherokees in North Carolina hold their lands in common,
just the same way we hold the Arkansas Riverbed lands. the Eastern
issues what is known as a "possessory title" to the holder of the lands.
This is a fully marketable title and can be sold or deeded to other
members of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. Such a plan would keep the
within the common holdings of the tribe, while at the same time offer
protection to those members of our tribe who, through no fault of their
become the owners of property with a clouded title and face eviction by
It is my firm belief that those members of our tribe who have lands
along the Arkansas River would much rather have a possessory title and
continue to enjoy the ownership of their property, than to be evicted,
Mankiller says we must do.
Horrible things are about to happen to all Cherokees if Mankiller is
allowed to continue on the road she has chosen and sells/trades our
Riverbed. What it all boils down to is what value is our Riverbed to
Our Riverbed, like our arms, legs and other body parts, is a part of
the whole. No part is useful by itself. What good is a hand that has
severed from the body. But as a part of the body, the hand has built
civilizations and takes us beyond the limits of our imagination.
Our Riverbed, like our hands, is an internal part of the whole we call
Cherokee Nation. Our Constitution says in the preamble that Nation
same thing as tribe. What is the tribe? It is us. The people of the
Nation make up the tribe. If we cut off our Arkansas Riverbed, we will
severing a part of ourselves.
Perhaps that is why the Mankiller administration has never been able to
do anything with the Arkansas Riverbed. They see it separately from the
of our Nation. Such narrow minded thinking only serves to prevent
stifles the welfare of our people.
How revealing it is to finally understand that the Mankiller
administration sees the various part of the body of the Cherokee Nation
several and for sale. Perhaps even we, the Cherokee people are for
are we already sold and just don't know it?