2015 Virtual Edition: Jean Dennison

Postscript to Whitewashing Indigenous Oklahoma and Chicano Arizona: 21st‐Century Legal Mechanisms of Settlement

While the primary focus of my article, “Whitewashing Indigenous Oklahoma and Chicano Arizona,” was on the legal tactics settler states use to assert authority over territory, whitewashing is also something that we as indigenous peoples sometimes facilitate ourselves. In order to more fully understand and combat this process, this postscript explores how the discourses indigenous officials use can contribute to settler whitewashing. One clear place this can be seen is the ongoing debate over a planned industrial wind farm within Osage Nation territory. This postscript interrogates the environmentally-based arguments Osage officials have used in this battle, illustrating how they are not only inefficient weapons against corporate authority, but how they also further whitewash the territory.

In April 2011, the Osage County Board of Adjustment approved a wind energy project over the objections of the Osage Nation, further entrenching the longstanding tensions between the county and Nation over who has legitimate authority over their shared territory. Since that time a full-fledged war over the project has ensued, with Osage Nation officials using various creative means to stop the construction.

The three primary arguments Osage Nation officials have deployed include the contention that the wind farms are going to ruin “some of the greatest undisturbed lands in North America”; that it is everyone’s “natural heritage”; and that it is a key habitat for “brother eagle.” In contradicting, neglecting, and avoiding the argument that the wind farms are within Osage territory and are thus subject to the jurisdiction of the Osage Nation, Osage officials themselves facilitate the settlement process.

Undisturbed Lands

In November 2013, after two years of gaining little ground in the public relations battle against the wind farms, which were set to break ground within Osage territory, the Osage Nation produced several high quality videos and released them on YouTube, using Facebook and various online news sources to promote their content. In the videos, postings, and news stories the Osage Nation promoted several different arguments in an attempt to sway public opinion against the wind farms. One of the videos begins with a sweeping view of the Tallgrass prairie as a smooth moderating voice asserts, “They are some of the greatest undisturbed lands in North America—the Tallgrass prairies of Osage County in northern Oklahoma. They have, for the most part, remained the same for hundreds of years” (Osage Nation 2013a). In addition to calling this land Osage County rather than the Osage reservation, these videos describe Osage territory as “some of the greatest undisturbed lands in North America.” This narrative should sound quite familiar, as it clearly echoes other tactics of whitewashing, dating back to the doctrine of discovery.

In redeploying this narrative of pristine nature, this video is clearly contributing to the ongoing settlement process, whereby both Osage authority over and modifications to the territory are whitewashed. In addition, the idea of this area of Osage territory as “undisturbed land” is almost comical in the face of over a hundred years of oil and natural gas extraction by the Osage, among other modifications. This tactic is thus not only dangerous to Osage authority over the territory, but it is also easily disputable. The wind farm and its advocates do not have to work hard to make a case that this land has already been “disturbed.” As an anonymous opinion published in the Enid News and Eagle (2011) put it,

Drilling can be disruptive to the area, too. We don’t think anyone would dispute that… It sounds like the tribe’s concern is choosing one form of energy over another.

This reading—that the Osage were against wind farms because they would interfere with oil production and more importantly Osage royalty payments—was the most common story told about the debate in mainstream media. This narrative too ignores the primary issue at stake, which is that unlike with minerals extraction, where the Osage Nation has complete authority, with the wind farms, the Osage Nation has been completely cut out of the conversation.

Our Natural Heritage

In another anti-wind farm video, the Osage Nation features Steve Sherrod of the Sutton Avian Research Center, an organization devoted to the research and conservation of birds and their natural habitats. Sherrod argues, “The Osage is a magic place. The horizon and the vista that one experiences there is just simply priceless. And what we are doing is simply sacrificing our natural heritage for short-term financial gain for some people” (Osage Nation 2013b). Here as well we see whitewashing at work, this time through redefining Osage territory as the natural heritage of all people. Drawing upon a similar argument, the Osage Nation Principal Chief John D. Red Eagle released a press statement saying:

The proposed projects will have an adverse impact upon the overall ecosystem of the Tallgrass Prairie, a true national treasure. The last remnants of the Tallgrass Prairie run from Osage County northward into northern Kansas. I believe that the Osage Nation must join others in its protection, restoration, and properly make use of the limited opportunities the prairie provides everyone.

Here the Chief of the Osage Nation is making a case, not that the Tallgrass Prairie is part of the Osage territory and subject to Osage jurisdiction, but that it is a “true national treasure” of everyone in the United States.

The notion of heritage, which is most often defined as “something that comes or belongs to a person by reason of birth” (Random House Dictionary 1978:421), is a particularly powerful tool for whitewashing, as it redefines stolen land as a right of birth. Such a move works to disguise the ongoing colonial process and grants all inhabitants an equal claim to the land. While certainly strategic in that it can mobilize a broad coalition of people against the wind farms, heritage also works to whitewash the land, making future challenges to settler state authority even more difficult. If Osage territory is reimagined as an American national treasure and as a birthright of all U.S. citizens, then asserting Osage authority becomes all that much harder.

Despite the strategic appeal of such an approach, however, it is also likely to fail. Like the aforementioned argument about unspoiled land, it is difficult to prove that wind farms are more detrimental to “our shared heritage” than the oil and gas already being produced in the area. Wind energy is well entrenched as an alternative green energy, while oil and gas have long been labeled environmentally unsound. Furthermore, such arguments are also subject to the counterarguments of local property owners. Providing a counter-narrative for several local news stories, Joe Bush, who leased his land to the wind farm, argued, “I respectfully disagree that it’s our tallgrass prairie. I own this part” (Smith 2014). Elsewhere he said, “Man’s use of his property should not be up to a public vote, should not be up to a public discussion; its private property… This is America” (Mummolo 2014). As my article explores, such assertions of private property are very powerful whitewashing tools that work to discredit indigenous authority over the land.

Brother Eagle

The most persuasive argument the Osage and environmentalists have deployed against the wind farms is that they are highly destructive to various bird species, most notably the eagle. The film Osage Wind Opposition / Eagle Kills has twice as many views as any of the other promotional videos produced by the Osage Nation. The film begins with threatening music and video footage of a bird hitting a wind turbine before spiraling to the ground as the moderator states, “When nature and modern machines collide, the outcome is often deadly. Wind turbines, which are often viewed as a clean, alternative energy source, are also having a negative impact on nature” (Osage Nation 2013c). Switching to a close-up of a dead eagle, the film goes on to relate that 573,000 birds are killed annually by wind generators and that the footprint for the wind farm is within a “migration corridor” for eagles.

To relate the importance of eagles to Osage people, Chief BigHorse (Monies 2014) argues,

For me to put a wind turbine up out here that is going to kill eagles—that is like killing one of our brothers or sisters.

In addition, Tulsa World, a daily newspaper with a circulation of around one hundred thousand, featured a picture of an Osage Nation employee with his arms “spread eagle” as if he himself were gliding over the prairie. While the powerful connection between Osages and eagles has political and cultural force within and outside the Osage Nation, such imagery is easily misread by the settler state. This rhetoric again positions indigenous peoples as part of nature rather than sovereigns over a territory. Such banal whitewashing discourse renders indigenous peoples as passive agents, only able to be protected and never themselves in control.

In September 2013, the Osage Nation successfully deployed the eagle to delay construction on the wind farms by convincing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to withhold its Voluntary Eagle Take Permit (Wade 2013). Unfortunately, this strategy also ultimately failed when the Obama administration announced on December 6, 2013 that several companies, including those operating within Osage territory, would be allowed to kill or injure eagles for up to 30 years without penalty, given that “renewable energy development is vitally important to our nation’s future” (U.S. Department Interior 2013). The appeal of renewable energy in this case trumps even the power of the eagle in American society.

Concluding Thoughts

As I have shown, environmental narratives are particularly powerful whitewashing tools in that they can veil indigenous authority within discussions of endangered species living on undisturbed lands, which are considered the natural heritage of all. Many Osages advocated a stronger approach to enforcing jurisdiction by having the Osage Nation police simply halt wind farm construction. Long histories of judicial power obscuring Osage authority and direct threats from the Osage County District Attorney made such an option appear legally impossible at best and criminal at worst. While the federal government has a well-established reasonability to enforce American Indian nations’ authority over their territory, it would be unlikely to do so in the face of such a large investment of global capital ($225 million thus far), particularly in the compelling case of alternative energy.

This battle is far from over. The Osage Nation, Osage County, and Enel (the Italian utility company constructing the wind farms) have taken the battle to Federal court in various suits, counter suits, and appeals. Litigation has partially worked as a delaying tactic, but even here the focus is not on the Osage Nation’s authority over the territory. Frightened about what can, and has, been lost by directly taking such jurisdictional issues to Federal court (evidenced clearly in the reservation tax case at the heart of my full article), the Osage Nation must fight the wind farms through other means. For example, one of these cases focused on procedural issues with Osage County Commissioners, rather than on questioning the Count’s claim to jurisdiction over Osage territory itself. While such creative strategies are vital for the current entangled colonial moment, Osage Nation officials must tread carefully so as to not further entrench settler authority. Such examples illustrate the power of whitewashing itself, as it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize indigenous authority.

Works Cited

Monies, Paul. 2014. Osage County Wind Projects Split Neighbors and Families | NewsOK.com. May 25.

Mummolo, Burt. 2014. Wind Farm Controversy Swirls In Osage County – KTUL.com – Tulsa, Oklahoma – News, Weather & Sports. May 8.

Osage Nation. 2013a. Osage Wind Opposition / Prairie Destruction.

Osage Nation. 2013b. Osage Wind Opposition / Osage Culture.

Osage Nation. 2013c. Osage Wind Opposition / Eagle Kills.

Random House Dictionary. 1997.  Heritage. New York: Ballantine Books.

Smith, Casey. 2014. Wind Energy Facility in Oklahoma Draws Rare Coalition. Tulsa World, May 8.

Jean Dennison is an assistant professor of anthropology at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she works on issues of representation, bodily politics, visual anthropology, and North American Indian citizenship, governance and sovereignty.