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Tribal Nations Hope New Interior Secretary Will Make Drilling Easier

U.S. Department of Energy
An oil production well in Osage County, Okla.

Many tribal nations rely on oil and gas for economic independence. They hope Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will make it easier for them to extract fossil fuels despite her past opposition.

Joe Conner is a citizen of the Osage Nation, and is what’s known as a headright owner in the tribal nation. That means he gets a quarterly payment from the profit of oil and gas leases on their land.

The last payment was a little over $2,500, but there was a time when quarterly payments were much more — at least $40,000.

Ever since he can remember, businessmen, oil wildcatters and the system have tried to exploit Osages for their oil and gas profits. Like the time two businessmen from Tulsa came to his family's country house in Grainola, Oklahoma.

Credit Allison Herrera / KOSU
Joe and Carol Conner of Fairfax, Okla.

"We saw this trail of dust coming down the road," said Conner. He remembers two white men in suits driving a fancy car rolling down their window and trying to hand his dad a bottle of whiskey in a brown paper sack. Joe was just a kid when he and his sister watched from the house.

"What they were trying to do was get him to take a bottle of whiskey to sign over a quick claim deed for his land," Conner said, meaning they were trying to get him drunk and swindle him out of his land and oil profits. Conner said his dad kicked the tire and the men drove off.

The Osage Nation is one of about a dozen tribal nations in the U.S. that have significant oil and gas reserves. It fuels their economy and provides income for their tribal citizens.

The Osage Nation hopes that Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold the position of Secretary of the Interior, will help them protect their oil and gas estate while also helping them with some of their environmental concerns. 

A cornerstone of newly-appointed Secretary of the Interior's political career has been a commitment to safeguard public lands, including reduction of mineral extraction in favor of alternative energy sources. But many tribal nations that rely on oil and gas for economic independence, like the Osage Nation, are hoping Haaland will do the opposite and make it easier for them to extract fossil fuels. Haaland's strong ties to tribal leaders could influence one of Oklahoma's most lucrative industries.

'We've had to fight every bit of the way'

Julie Malone lives in Pawhuska, the seat of the Osage Nation. She's also an Osage Nation headright owner and president of the Osage Nation Shareholders Association. That quarterly headright check makes a difference to her.

"That money is a cushion for my retirement. That I will never be without anything, knowing that's there, that gives me great comfort," Malone said.

Malone inherited the shares of the oil and gas leases from her grandfather, Clarence Joseph Revard. He lived through the Osage murders and eventually moved away to Kansas because of the trauma. Revard always told Malone about the importance of the mineral estate the tribal nation owned. That's why to her, it's more than money. It's about a long history of the federal government trying to take what is theirs.

"For more than 100 years, we've had to fight every bit of the way," she said.

The Osage Nation is different. Unlike other tribal nations, it owns its reservation — at least what's underneath the ground. In 1877, the tribe purchased the land from the Cherokee Nation and decided to permanently settle in Northeast Oklahoma after a brutal removal campaign from their homeland in Kansas, Missouri and parts of Oklahoma. Owning what's underground — the oil and gas — has benefitted generations of Osages.

"My Osages knew there's something there," said Everett Waller, chairman of the Osage Minerals Council, about the tribal nation's underground reservation that they've managed for more than 100 years. "We didn't know exactly what it was but, we knew that it might be very, very thoughtful to protect it now. And we did."

The Osage Minerals Council is the governing body within the nation that manages all the oil and gas leases. Waller is responsible for maximizing profits for Osage Nation shareholders.

While profits are not what they were several years ago during one of the last booms in Oklahoma, he knows people are counting on him to get oil companies to come in and lease the land to drill. He's also aware of the incoming Secretary of the Interior's view on the extraction business and her support for climate change legislation that might call for halting oil and gas leases on tribal lands like his. But, he's hopeful.

"I think that she will identify that I speak on behalf of a fossil fuel tribe, the oldest," said Waller, who supports Haaland and looks forward to working with her. "So, I'm going to look at, how do we face the future and production?"

But Conner says Haaland is different.

"Clearly we don't know what the new Secretary of [the] Interior is going to do," said Conner. "We do know that there will be some impact on drilling and oil exploration. We don't know what. But, she also is a Native and she is respectful of tribal sovereignty."

Balancing oil production, environment concerns

During Haaland's confirmation hearing, Oklahoma Senator James Lankford grilled the congresswoman on her statements about the environment. He also name-checked the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the onerous process they put Osage Minerals Council through when approving leases. Specifically, when an endangered beetle was discovered and put new oil and gas leases on hold, crippling their production. Haaland didn't back down.

"And I know that every listing is different. So, what I would say is, if I’m confirmed, I would absolutely work with the scientists who manage these species and absolutely take a good close look," Haaland said during her confirmation hearings last month.

Both Waller and Conner agree with Lankford on the BIA: the process scares off oil and gas producers. Some have been very critical of the agency.

Nona Roach is a land owner and an independent oil and gas accountant from Avant, Oklahoma. She's worked with the Osage Minerals Council and has dealt with the BIA for the last several years on oil and gas leases. Roach, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said Haaland is going to have to work with shareholders, land owners like herself and oil producers if she wants to get anything done in Osage County.

"She needs to take care of what's out there because they don't even know what we got out there," said Roach. "I've heard different people talk about there is almost every kind of geological formations in the Osage as there is anywhere in the United States."

Drilling on the Osage reservation is slowly starting again. Prices — and payments — have been down due to the pandemic. Waller is hopeful that when Haaland comes on board, she can help the tribal nation cut through the red tape, help manage some of their environmental concerns and look towards the future.

"This is all for our children," said Waller. "Even what I do today, I don't just look at this as a headright owner, I know all these children and kids, we grew up together. And that's why it's important that we always take care of our Mother Earth."

Malone also supports Haaland because of her record and because she knows what it's like to be an Indigenous person living in the U.S.

"This is our home and we have children and grandchildren that we want to make sure inherit a good home," said Malone.

Oil production on Osage land isn't going to last forever, but it's not going to end overnight.


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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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