One sunny day in 2015, Walter Echo-Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation, stumbled upon a disturbing scene. While walking on tribal lands near his home in northeast Oklahoma, he came across a group of strange men, a company pickup truck, and several small, bright flags thrust into the ground.
Echo-Hawk spoke to the foreman. Turns out, they were a work crew surveying a pipeline for fracking operations.
Echo-Hawk called the oil company responsible to find out more information. They stonewalled him. Then he contacted several government agencies. Eventually, Echo-Hawk learned the truth: Two years prior, regulators had approved 17 oil and gas leases on Pawnee lands.
Echo-Hawk immediately began mobilizing fellow tribal members to fight the leases. But regulators at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management said it was too late. The leases had already been approved. The agencies also claimed the Pawnee couldn’t take them to court because the tribe had failed to challenge the leases when they were issued.
The Pawnee, however, hadn’t been aware of the leases because the agencies — in violation of their own rules — neglected to notify the tribe of the approvals in any way. To Echo-Hawk’s knowledge, they didn’t even bother to put a notice in the newspaper.
Echo-Hawk was furious.
“They were treating Pawnee lands like an oil and gas fiefdom,” he says.
It was hardly the first time the U.S. government had trampled over tribal rights. The government set aside Oklahoma as “Indian Territory” in the 1800s — a place to put the tribes it had relocated, often forcibly, to clear the way for white settlers. But once settlers realized the state’s potential value for agricultural and other uses, they grabbed it up in a gluttonous, federally sanctioned land rush.
Today, Native American lands are under threat once again. A fracking boom has crowned the U.S. as the world’s top oil producer at a time when scientists warn we have a mere decade to transition to clean energy if we don’t want to fry the planet. Because tribal lands hold about 20 percent of U.S. fossil fuel reserves, they’re often the battleground for energy fights, as in the Dakota Access pipeline case.
Many tribal members are increasingly worried about environmental harms from fracking such as oil spills, increased truck traffic, and hazardous fumes from flaring, as well as societal harms like a spike in drug-fueled crimes such as rape and murder. In 2017, the Trump administration heightened these threats by repealing an Obama-era rule that strengthened fracking regulations on federal and tribal lands. (Earthjustice is currently fighting that repeal.)
“We’ve seen land rushes in Oklahoma before and now they’re trying to wring the last drop of oil from Mother Earth no matter what the cost,” says Echo-Hawk. “And the state and federal agencies are doing everything they can to facilitate that.”
In addition to yet another land grab, the Pawnee are also concerned about the links between fracking and a surge in earthquakes, both in Oklahoma and across the country. In 2014, Oklahoma surpassed California as the most seismically active state in the lower 48. Historically, Oklahomans had felt an average of one or two sizable rumbles per year, but that number has more recently spiked to two or three per day.
Despite this threat, government regulators didn’t adequately address the earthquake risk when approving the leases. Nor did they address the impacts of drilling near the Cimarron River, a 698-mile cinnamon-and paprika-colored ribbon of water that supports a native fishery protected under Pawnee tribal law.
When they saw the regulators weren’t going to budge, the Pawnee called Earthjustice.
“I was looking for someone who could take on the federal government,” says Echo-Hawk. “I was totally elated when Earthjustice said they could take the case. I felt like I was in good hands.”
In early September 2016, the tribe’s fears about fracking were realized after the most powerful earthquake recorded in Oklahoma history struck the Pawnee area. The jolt was also felt by six neighboring states.
“My house is brick and stone, and it shook like it was made of straw,” says Echo-Hawk, whose home was among the many houses and administrative buildings damaged in the quake.
Shortly after, Earthjustice sued the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management on behalf of the Pawnee Nation, Echo-Hawk, and other individual Pawnee members.
Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman says the Pawnee situation illustrates a pattern in which the federal government violates the law by approving oil and gas projects on tribal lands without telling the affected tribes. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has used a similar maneuver in recent years in New Mexico, Maine, and on other tribal lands in Oklahoma.
“Our government has run roughshod over the rights of Native Americans when approving oil and gas development,” Freeman said. “But the law requires federal agencies to respect tribal laws and sovereignty.”
In addition to filing the federal court lawsuit, Earthjustice asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reconsider its leasing decision through a legal mechanism known as an administrative appeal. In May 2018, the agency’s internal review agreed with the tribe’s argument, determining that the Bureau of Indian Affairs violated the law. As a result, the bureau invalidated three of the leases and declared another ten expired and therefore no longer in effect.
“These are very arrogant companies always running roughshod over everybody,” says Echo-Hawk. “It’s always good to put arrogance in its place.”
Only four leases now remain, and the tribe, represented by Earthjustice, is bringing the case to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, a federal review body. At the same time, Earthjustice’s challenge against the Bureau of Land Management’s drilling permit approvals is moving forward in district court. Earthjustice will brief the merits of this challenge over the summer. [Editor’s note 3/31/2023: We are still awaiting decisions from both the appeals board and the court.]
Echo-Hawk is hopeful that the remaining leases will also be nixed, even in an administration that is clearly “no friend of native people, much less the environment we live in.”
“It’s a dicey environment to litigate in,” says Echo-Hawk. “But when your back’s to the wall, sometimes you gotta take a stand.”