Officials meet with Indian leaders to discuss achievements, problems

Oklahoma, home to 37 federally recognized American Indian tribes, is often close to the issues of Indian America that nurture a special brand of sovereignty, one with potential impact for all citizens.


For that reason, the Oklahoma Supreme Court annually looks to the convergence of tribal and mainstream with The Sovereignty Symposium. The 2009 symposium, "Land, Wind and Water," is held at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel Wednesday and Thursday.

The two-day event examines various issues that inextricably link tribal sovereignty to the general public welfare, organizers said. The event is slated to act as a prelude to the annual powwow of Red Earth Festival, held Friday through Sunday at the Cox Convention Center.

The Sovereignty Symposium is expected to draw around 500 attendees that will include tribal leaders, members and attorneys. Likewise, members of the Oklahoma bar, Oklahoma Supreme Court and state officials will attend, including Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson and Lt. Gov. Jari Askins.

Each year, the event has managed to schedule and draw some of the most influential advocates on Indian issues. This year, Kevin Gover, a Pawnee Nation member and director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, will be on hand to discuss arts and cultural preservation as the glue of identity cohesiveness.

The speakers and moderators join a list of notables from previous symposiums like Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, former U.S. Treasurer Mary Ellen Withrow and Chickasaw astronaut Commander John Herrington, officials said.

The favored format for this year's symposium includes panel discussions and a keynote address from oil magnate T. Boone Pickens. Pickens, reputed to be the largest private owner of groundwater rights in the country, favors the development of wind energy and is looking to start the world's largest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle.

Meanwhile, Choctaw chief Greg Pyle and Oklahoma's Secretary of Energy Robert Wegener are featured panelists who will discuss topics ranging from Indian gaming, Indian child welfare, transportation issues, rights-of-way and land inheritance.

Other symposium events feature Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Rudolph Hargrave as the master of ceremonies. The presentation of flags, accompanied by tribal leaders, will be headed by the Vietnam Era Veterans Intertribal Association and the Kiowa Black Leggings. The Southern Nation Singers will sing intertribal songs, and an invocation will be given by Lawrence Hart, a traditional Cheyenne and Arapaho peace chief.

Julie Rorie, event organizer, said although topics are timely, they are careful to avoid unsettled controversial topics, like the Cherokee Nation freedmen case, which is still pending in tribal and federal court. Broader topics, like identity, are the favored path.

"We will look at Indian identity, but we shy away from topics that further disputes," she said.

For tribes who attend, the sovereign nation officials attend the symposium as a way to socialize with their peers on a level playing ground, said Fort Sill Apache vice-chairman, Lori Gooday-Ware, who has attended the event for several years running.

"I like to find out what's going on with other tribes," she said. "We're also so busy in our own offices that sometimes we don't know what's affecting other tribes. There's a lot at stake here." 

For other tribes, topic issues are timely for another reason. Leslie Standing, president of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, said he is facing water rights issues regarding the allotments of some 50 Indian tribal landowners with adjacent Grady County.

Standing said he sees the event as a way to get a primer on water rights " a critical issue.

"Water is going to be a big-time issue in the next few years for the tribes," he said.

The symposium has scheduled two panels on water rights slated for Wednesday, one of which will be moderated by Edmondson.

Rorie said the event, which was once a three-day event that now adheres to a two-day schedule, should show strong even in a rocky economic climate.

"We're certainly blessed by the number of people who have gone out in the world and come back and have something to offer in the way of a larger perspective," she said.

The event is sponsored by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission, Indian Law Section of the Oklahoma Bar Association, Oklahoma Arts Council, University of Tulsa College of Law, University of Oklahoma College of Law and the Oklahoma City University School of Law. "S.E. Ruckman