The Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma filed suit against the United States in federal court on March 25. Based on collected evidence of land and monetary account mismanagement, the case was filed as a class action lawsuit in behalf of both the approximately 4,500 member-Quapaw Tribe based in Quapaw, in the northeast corner of Oklahoma, and at least 400 individual Quapaw landowners. The tribe is seeking $175 million in damages going back to at least the 1890s.
The original area of the Quapaw Reservation in Oklahoma was due to removal from present-day Arkansas through the 1830s. According to a press release issued by the Quapaw Tribe, the Quapaw lands of Oklahoma “was the site of one of the richest discoveries of lead and zinc ever made in the United States.” However, according to the press release, the results of mining negligence destroyed Quapaw tribal lands, encompassing these lands within the Tar Creek Superfund site.
A case study of Tar Creek published on the University of Michigan website states that Quapaw is one of the five mining towns in which residents have been exposed to high levels of lead, zinc, cadmium and other heavy metals from 1891 to 1970. As of March 2013, Tar Creek is still under Remedial Action status with the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It was a very close relationship at the time,” Quapaw Chairman John Berrey said to Indian Country Today Media Network about the ties between the federal government and the mining companies. “The negotiation for the amount and the bonding for the cleanup was all managed by the Department of the Interior. If you go up there today, you can see that the bonding and the enforcement of the cleanup was never done.”
The investigation for the lawsuit has been part of a 10-year process, including four years of research in the national archives. In 2005, the Quapaw Tribe settled a lawsuit with the United States based on the accounting contract originally managed by the DOI. A result of this settlement was the expanded investigation of other federal documents pertaining to the Quapaw. Berrey said that this process also included research of state archives, universities and museums, with the tribe gathering nearly 1 million digitized pages “that tell the story of the management at Quapaw.”
The Quapaw release also states that the Department of the Interior agreed to “mediate the claims of the tribe as its members” as part of the original 2005 settlement. However, the Quapaw Tribe claims that the Justice Department intervened and told them to file a lawsuit instead. When this occurred, the Quapaw Tribe went through Congress to gain support through congressional reference, authorizing the Quapaw Tribe to file through the U.S. Court of Federal Claims with H.R. 5862.
The Quapaw Tribe’s press release cites a quote from the resolution’s primary sponsor, Congressman and Chickasaw Nation tribal member Tom Cole, R-Okla. The statement said “[d]espite a 10-year legal process during which the tribe fulfilled every step of its agreement with the government, the Justice Department failed to follow through, leaving this important issue unresolved.”
Other supporters of the resolution include Representatives Lamar Smith, R-Texas, Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and former U.S. Representative Dan Boren, D-Okla.
With the Cobell case making more recent headlines, ICTMN asked Chairman Berrey the differences between Cobell and the Quapaw’s federal lawsuit. According to Berrey, the Quapaw’s lawsuit deals not only with the mismanagement of individual monies but also with specific land resource mismanagement and specific tribal claims.
“Some of it’s a tribal claim; part of it is individual claims,” said Berrey. “Cobell was mostly an accounting claim against the Individual Indian Monies account management. For years, the Quapaw Tribe and some other people always complained that the real problem was in the resource management.”
Berrey also said that the Quapaw Tribe asked its members to “opt out of the resource management claim in Cobell” but to still receive their IIM account claim. Additionally, Berrey made the distinction of the Quapaw’s case being within the U.S. Court of Federal Claims instead of U.S. District Court, as was the case with Cobell.
“It’s more about the management of the asset or the resource itself,” said Berrey. “The tribal claim also includes our tribal account.”
ICTMN asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to comment on the Quapaw Tribe’s filing. Nedra Darling, spokeswoman for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, stated in an e-mailed reply that “[t]he Department of the Interior’s policy is not to report on matters that are currently in litigation.”
When asked how the Quapaw Tribe’s lawsuit will help Native people as a whole, Berrey said it gives the Quapaw an opportunity to share their story.
“We have actual, factual evidence and a unique story,” said Berrey. “At Quapaw, we think, it is one of the most heinous, illegal managements that took place in Indian country. It’s a horrible story; it’s a sad story. We’re really excited that we get to bring our story to the courts.”