Map of land ruled as an Indian Reservation in Oklahoma in McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020). Red shaded area represents territory of the Five Tribes of Oklahoma.
Land ruled as an Indian Reservation in Oklahoma in McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020). Photo courtesy of the US Census Bureau; U.S. Supreme Court.

Marty Matlock, chairman of the Cherokee Nation Environmental Protection Commission, talked about Native American natural resource rights in a presentation as part of the Nebraska Water Center’s annual Spring Seminar Series March 3. 

The series is in partnership with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Natural Resources. This year, local, national and international speakers are connecting water issues with race, justice, and the environment over Zoom every other week.

Jesse Starita, the public relations and engagement coordinator at Nebraska Water Center, said four out of seven seminars in the series are being presented by Native American speakers.

“These speakers represent the Sioux, Cherokee and Omaha tribes and the distinct issues facing each, including oil and gas pipelines, water rights, flooding impacts and maintaining indigenous knowledge and culture,” he said. 

Starita said the series aims to raise awareness of Native American political issues in Nebraska because they are often inadequately represented.

“Native peoples are the first Nebraskans. They gave our state its name – Nebraska meaning ‘flat water’ in the Oto language. Today, their voices are often underrepresented in water and natural resources discussions, which is very disproportionate to the amount of wisdom and experience they have accumulated on these subjects,” he said.

Matlock, a native Cherokee Nation member from Oklahoma, said the historic struggle of native nations to secure rights over land and water in Oklahoma now revolves around water quality.

“The state frankly is not doing a great job at managing water quality. In Oklahoma today, you will find that almost every water body in the state is designated as unfit for primary human contact because of fecal coliform contamination,” Matlock said. 

He said this is a problem for the Five Tribes of Oklahoma, also referred to as the Five Sister Tribes: the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee) and Seminole Nations, because they are currently unable to implement their own separate water quality standards program in Oklahoma’s Indian country.

Since statehood was granted to Oklahoma in 1907,  the state’s legal position has been that all tribal reservations and all tribal jurisdictions were abolished.

However, on July 9, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that almost the entire eastern half of the state is an Indian reservation in Mcgirt v. Oklahoma. The land was promised to Native American tribes in the 1830s after approximately 100,000 members were forcibly removed from their homelands,  77 million acres which stretched across present-day Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Despite the court’s official recognition that the eastern Oklahoma land belongs to Native Americans, tribes are still currently unable to exercise sovereignty over the water resources contained within its borders. 

The Cherokee Nation’s challenge to gain water rights in the Indian country of Oklahoma puts them in danger, Matlock said.

“We believe we’re up for the fight, and we’re building our infrastructure to be more effective at it, but until we can control our resources we’re in trouble. Until we control our resources, everything we are doing is at risk,” he said.

According to Matlock, the Cherokee Nation strives for political advancement of native water rights because it is seen as the path for future prosperity.

“We have to operate within the realm of the possible, and that’s what we do. We try to manage our affairs and our strategies moving forward to enhance the prosperity of our children, not to fight historical battles. We don’t have time for that. We are struggling. We are suffering. We are hurting. We are poor. We are dispossessed. We are disenfranchised.”