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Old 02-13-2004, 03:58 PM   #2
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Apache tribe’s ‘Erin Brockovich’ (Part Two)

Posted: January 23, 2004 - 3:24pm EST
by: Mary Pierpoint / Correspondent / Indian Country Today

(In an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today, Apache tribal member, Emily Saupitty talks about the duplicity and behind the door dealings of the oil companies and the government of Oklahoma and how they took the federal government out of the loop to maintain their hold on the rich gas and oil leases on Indian land.)

APACHE, Okla. - By the time Indian people were finally being recognized as citizens of the United States in 1924, oil companies were already circling Indian land like vultures for the rich fields of oil and gas that were beneath them. For many Apache tribal members and their neighbors who were barely surviving, the idea of making money from gas and oil royalties wasn’t a choice; it was a matter of survival. So they signed leases with oil companies believing that through those agreements they would be able to provide for their children and their children’s children. It worked for a while, but as the oil companies became more powerful, the 12 percent promised to the families began dwindling and now many receive less than 1 percent of the royalties once promised to them.

Many leases were on land allotted to children. Although their parents were living and able to negotiate the gas and oil leases, Indian agents usurped parental rights by using a policy that allowed them to sign for children in the event that their parents were unable to. In other cases adults, uneducated and trusting signed the leases, not realizing that once the papers were signed, they would not be able to go back and re-negotiate the terms of the lease.

"I get royalty owners coming into me and telling me that they go and check on their leases and they are told that their leases are perpetual," Saupitty said. "Some are given other reasons like they were signed for a 100 years, I mean just crazy things like this."

The State of Oklahoma then stepped in and set up a commission that bypassed the federal government’s role in protecting the rights of Indian people. "From the records that I have been reading and all the research I have been doing, I found that when the United States government got into this oil exploration, they at that time, found, that a lot of the lands like that here in Oklahoma had been opened up to non-Indians," she continued. "What they found was that there was an abundance of oil, but with technology being as limited as it was back then they really couldn’t tell how far it went or how much they had, but they could tell that there were minerals that they could utilize. Back, I believe the earliest that I was reading, was from 1924 and even back then they could see that there was an abundance in some areas of not only oil, but gas as well. In 1938, which is one of the earliest documents I have gotten from one of the royalty owners so far there could be more possibly further back that had the unitization plan in it."

The unitization plan Saupitty said, was developed by the state senate in Oklahoma

"This unitization plan says that they can invest the Indian’s money at a fair market value, at a higher market value on their behalf, utilizing their resources is what it says," she continued. "What they did was, the Oklahoma legislation that developed this utilization plan with all these conditions and put all these conditions and terms on behalf of the landowners, regardless of who they were. That in a way by steps the Secretary of Interior who had that trust responsibility of saying yes or no pertaining to the trust properties that were in the KCA reservation. What they did was develop a way so they can lease the properties in a unit form, the most abundant ones were the ones they put under this unitization agreement and what that plan did was allow the state corporation to more or less run the whole thing and say yes or no to any conditions of that. From what I see and interpret is they did this in a way in which the oil companies and the state would be benefiting under this more than the land owners would and in a way in which they wouldn’t have to go through the Secretary of the Interior, which is the BIA. So when they did this they allowed the oil companies to also be the operators. From what I read the BIA had certain conditions that the oil companies would have had to meet for them to come and utilize the trust owners resources. In the unitization plan they were supposed to bring the landowners up to a level of living that was comparable to their neighbors, but it didn’t happen that way. From the records I read, the oil companies went before the state corporation and got a license in order to do this kind of exploration and whatever else they wanted … the landowners had NO say so in this at all. These conditions were all set in place, legislation had passed it."

Some of the records Saupitty has make it sound, she said, as though the Indians didn’t know or understand the agreements. She disagrees, "I believe they did and to this day, especially with the Apache tribe, the tribal leaders who were in there did not agree to any of the conditions or terms that were set down by anything as far as the welfare of their people. It didn’t meet the requirements that would be in the best interest of not only their people, but the ones who were living around them."

With the state backing their actions the oil companies soon had carte blanche over leases and land owners rights. The power now being wielded over landowners by oil companies is what Saupitty considers to be abusive. With no real checks and balances landowners had no place to go to get the share of the 12 percent first promised to them. Using the same methods of calculation shown in the leases and by state and federal agencies Saupitty, tax commissioner and former tribal council member, has found that the amount owed to the landowners on the 640 acres is $800 million. "I used their formulas for calculating this and the $800 million is before interest and penalties," Saupitty said. "That is just for this small section, there are other land owners out there who are asking for my help now. This is just a small part of what has happened here in Oklahoma. The Secretary of the Department of the Interior is behind us on this now, they have told me I have their backing."

So on the 29th of January, Saupitty goes to court with a foreclosure against the oil companies she believes have been cheating her family and others for years. But for the Apache’s Erin Brockovich the battle is more than just getting back the money owed to the people who wanted only to ensure a future for their children. A battle against the same companies is getting ready to begin that may cost the same big oil companies more millions because of the environmental impact that is costing the lives of her relatives and neighbors.

(Next in the series, the cancer and lupus clusters that are claiming the lives of the ones who have been cheated out of their royalties are now finding that oil companies may be responsible because of their carelessness as they extracted the riches from their land. The poorest of the poor cannot even afford health care as the land on which they live, once promising, is now killing them.)
This article can be found at
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