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Native American tribes in Oklahoma have developed a variety of approaches to watershed management and water policy in their national lands. Over half of the land in Oklahoma falls within tribal national boundaries and approximately 7% of the population has a tribal affiliation. Therefore, tribal approaches to water policy, especially in the water-rich Eastern portion of the state, influence the choices for the entire state. This research draws on semi-structured interviews with tribal water policymaking elites in Oklahoma including officials from the Caddo, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Citizen Potawatomi, Muscogee Creek, Pawnee, and Seminole Nations. We analyze tribes’ approaches to water policy in contrast with non-tribal stakeholders. We analyzed water as a cultural resource, future use of the land, toleration of pollution, and motivations for sustainability. We also found a variety of different approaches to creating and enforcing water policy among the tribes. These approaches include writing a Water Atlas to protect culturally important sites, cooperating with state and federal agencies on water quality programs, seeking Treatment as a State under the Clean Water Act, and permitting oil and gas activity on tribal lands. The U.S. Supreme Court jurisdiction case McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020) makes this research all the more relevant because tribes may have more jurisdiction to direct environmental regulation in their lands, although the 2005 Midnight Rider puts this jurisdiction into jeopardy. “Our nations are built on ceremonies, and our nations are built on understanding our relationships with the earth. I always give credit to the drummer for keeping the traditions, keeping the dances, keeping the languages, keeping the cultures, because that is who we are” (Lyons 2007, vii).
-- Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper, Onondaga Indian Nation