EL RENO, OKLA. Members of the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribes protested federal legislation Wednesday that would allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lease about 6,700 acres of land American Indians claim as their own.
About 75 Cheyenne-Arapaho tribal members quietly protested outside the gates of Fort Reno, which is now a USDA research laboratory. The land is about 40 miles east of Oklahoma City.
Holding neon signs with bold black lettering, some of the signs read: "Fort Reno is our land," "Another broken promise" and "Another Republican oil and gas giveaway."
The legislation was introduced in October 2005 by U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
"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 Wednesday.
Cheyenne-Arapaho Gov. Darrell Flyingman said the Indians have a valid claim to ownership of the land.
"I thought the days of stealing Indians' lands were over - I mean, it's 2006," Flyingman said.
The Cheyenne-Arapaho would like to use the land for economic development by building a manufacturing facility that could employ up to 2,000.
Though Inhofe said the land would be used for USDA lease purposes only, but Flyingman said the real reason is what lies beneath the surface.
Flyingman said a geological survey was conducted about 10 years ago, and it found that there are about a half-billion barrels of oil in the ground at the Fort Reno site.
The USDA's Agricultural Research Service currently uses the land for a Grazinglands Research Laboratory.
Tribal leaders said the land was placed in federal trust in 1883 when the Fort Reno Military Reservation was established and was to revert to them when no longer needed for military purposes, but that hasn't happened in the 58 years that Fort Reno has been closed.
In an April 2006 letter to Inhofe, the USDA said it found the tribes' claims to be without merit after the department's Office of General Counsel researched the matter.
The letter says the tribe was "financially compensated for the Fort Reno lands," and in 1890 the tribes agreed to "cede" 4.6 million acres to the United States including the Fort Reno site.
A 1999 letter from the United States Department of the Interior to the Bureau of Indian Affairs states the tribes have credible arguments, but cannot pursue their claims in court because of the federal Quiet Title Act, which requires civil action for U.S. property to take place within 12 years of when the claim is made. The tribes' claims began a half-century ago.