THREE tribes seeking $50 million in property dispute

Monday, August 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Three American Indian tribes are seeking $50 million from the federal government to settle a dispute based on 19th century treaties involving ownership of thousands of acres of land along the Arkansas River.

Lawyers for the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw nations want the proposal to be introduced in Congress this year. They say a settlement would end decades of legal wrangling and possibly save landowners from being evicted from their property.

``There have been figures thrown around from $8.5 million to $177 million,'' said Jim Wilcoxen, an attorney for the Cherokees. ``The government needs to do what it set out to do 30 years ago and settle this. We think it's a fair number.''

At issue is about 7,700 acres along the Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma stretching from south of Sallisaw to Fort Smith, Ark. The tribes claim oil, natural gas, sand and gravel have been removed from the property over the years.

The Cherokees claim that they own half of the land, while the Choctaws and the Chickasaws own the other half. They base their claims on treaties signed with the government in the 1800's.

The tribes are offering to give up claims to 7,750 acres of dry land in Sequoyah and Le Flore counties now held by other people and drop a lawsuit that is pending in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

In exchange, the tribes want more than $41 million plus another $8 million for future rental of the Arkansas River where the Webbers Falls Lock and Dam and Kerr Lock and Dam generate electricity.

The tribes would retain the Arkansas River bed, its minerals and the undisputed tribal lands from Arkansas to Muskogee. The tribes also would not give up area water rights, which are being negotiated separately with the state of Oklahoma.

The tribes have asked Sens. Don Nickles, R-Okla., and Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., as well as Rep. Brad Carson, D-Okla., to take their proposal before Congress. A spokesman for Inhofe, Dan Barron, said the senator will listen to all options.

Bob Rabon, an attorney for the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, said any settlement money would be split 50 percent to the Cherokees, 37.5 percent to the Choctaws and 12.5 percent to the Chickasaws.

In 1830, the Choctaws and Chickasaws were given land in what is now Oklahoma in exchange for millions of acres east of the Mississippi River. The Cherokees struck a similar agreement in 1835.

In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the tribes own the Arkansas River bed and banks from Muskogee to Fort Smith. But the land boundaries were undetermined, largely because the river had shifted since the 1800's.

The tribes sued the government in 1989, alleging that it had not protected their rights to the property. The lawsuit prompted a U.S Bureau of Land Management Survey.

The government in 1997 filed a lawsuit in federal court in Muskogee against 106 defendants and landholders along the Arkansas River, but the suit was dismissed two years later.