Creek Nation seeks aid on trusts
BY CLIFTON ADCOCK World Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
8/06/09 at 3:12 PM
This story originally contained incorrect information about the number of county commissioners who sent letters to the BIA. The story has been corrected.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation is gearing up for a fight against Tulsa city and county government over tribal trust land issues, and is asking for help from more than 500 tribes around the country.
In a letter sent to more than three dozen Oklahoma tribal leaders, Principal Chief A.D. Ellis asked for support and unity after the Tulsa City Council passed a resolution last week opposing the tribe putting two pieces of land in Tulsa in trust.
Two Tulsa County commissioners also sent letters to the Bureau of Indian Affairs asking that a trust application be rejected.
The Creek letter is also being sent to more than 500 Indian tribes throughout the nation, as well as the National Congress of American Indians, Ellis said.
"This action by the City of Tulsa could have a far-reaching effect on all Indian nations," Ellis wrote.
"I would urge all tribal governments with trust land in and around cities everywhere to consider and respond to this attempt to interfere with tribal relations with the United States government. Our rights are again being threatened. The voices of many, speaks louder than one."
The letter, sent to the executive branches of 38 federally recognized Oklahoma tribes, states that the city represents a large voting bloc that will "undoubtedly reach our representation in Washington, D.C., for their support."
Tulsa's three county commissioners sent separate letters to the BIA on July 15 opposing the tribe's application to put land in trust for a parking lot near River Spirit Casino at 81st Street and Riverside Drive.
Last week, the Tulsa City Council passed a resolution opposing the Creek's application to put two pieces of land on the Arkansas River in trust because it would decrease the city's tax revenue.
The two pieces of land include the parking lot land and acreage on the west side of the river, near 81st Street and Peoria Avenue, eyed by the tribe for a strip mall.
In January, Mayor Kathy Taylor asked the BIA to not put the west bank land in trust, saying that it would cost more than $34 million to provide infrastructure to the property, in addition to lost sales and property taxes, and that part of the property sits in a flood zone.
Having land in trust with the federal government is vital to many tribal enterprises and a tribe's sovereignty, tribal officials say. Almost all tribal casinos, smoke shops and government service buildings are on trust or restricted land.
In most cases, trust land is outside the jurisdiction of local and state authorities, and thus exempt from local taxes and regulation.
Ellis said he has received several calls from tribes in the eastern and western part of the state supporting his position, and that he is asking those tribes to send letters to the BIA.
"If it (the attempt to stop land being put into trust) affects us and is successful, then it's going to affect all of the tribes, because most of the tribes at one time or another have land in whatever towns they're in," Ellis said. "(The BIA) works for the tribes, they don't work for the city, that's their job. This has been going on throughout history, land issues."
In their letters, the commissioners wrote that it would cost the county an estimated $102,053 per year in property taxes if the land were put into trust and more if the land was developed.
"I must cautiously oppose this acquisition at this time," wrote District 3 Commissioner Fred Perry. "Further, should these properties become commercially developed, this loss of (property tax) revenue would amount to a taxpayer subsidization of tribal commercial pursuits, and a taxpayer promotion of a private business that may be in direct competition with several nontribal commercial enterprises."
Perry said the individual commissioner's letters were not coordinated with the Tulsa City Council's recent actions, and that he is open to meeting with tribal officials to discuss a resolution to the matter.
Ellis said no meetings have been held with city or county officials on the issue, but that he too is open to talks.
"I'd like to hear what kind of proposition they have," Ellis said. "I think it's up to them to come up with a proposition, not us."
Other potential battles
Meanwhile, another fight may be on the horizon as the Creeks plan to submit an application to put land near 121st Street and Yale Avenue into trust, Ellis said.
Tribal officials in the past have acknowledged plans to build a toll bridge on the land between south Tulsa and Jenks.
A similar, previous effort by the city of Jenks caused an uproar by some south Tulsa citizens and a legal battle that ended with the state Supreme Court deciding in favor of the city of Tulsa.
City councilors will likely fight an effort by the tribe to put a bridge on the land.
"We just bought a lot of land down on South Yale. That's going to be a big battle, I know it," Ellis said.
An application to put the land in trust has not yet been submitted, he said.
The Creek Nation is also fighting other battles dealing with its sovereignty.
The largest tribe in Oklahoma without a tobacco compact, it is involved in two court battles with the state over cigarette brands sold at several of its smoke shops that are not allowed in the state, one filed by the state against some of the tribal business officials and smoke shop owners, and the other filed by the tribe seeking the return of cigarettes without tax stamps seized by the Oklahoma Tax Commission earlier this year.
Clifton Adcock 581-8462