The two U.S. senators from Arkansas and two of the state's U.S. House members have weighed in on what might happen to 160 acres of land that the Quapaw Tribe owns in that state.

The four legislators sent a letter on June 29 to Sally Jewell, the secretary of the interior, asking her to listen to Arkansas officials who oppose a move by the Quapaw that would largely remove the land from local control.

"We believe these elected officials are in the best position to determine the impacts, both positive and negative, granting such an application would have," the legislators wrote.

The letter was signed by Sen. Tom Cotton, Sen. John Boozman, Rep. French Hill and Rep. Bruce Westerman.

The battle over the land near Little Rock is being played out before the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in what is known as a fee-to-trust-acquisition application. It is unclear when a decision on the land will be made.

The land was part of the Quapaw ancestral homeland before the tribe was expelled from the state nearly two centuries ago and forced to live in Oklahoma. 

Indian mounds on the land contain Quapaw graves, according to the tribe. Tribal officials say they want to protect the land, which also includes a slave cemetery that may have up to 100 unmarked graves.

Quapaw Chairman John Berrey has said in a statement that the Arkansas land was deeded and promised to the Quapaw Tribe as a homeland as compensation for the Indians giving up millions of acres from the Mississippi River to western Oklahoma.

"It was intended to serve as a permanent homeland," Berrey said in June. 

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has also opposed the Quapaw effort to gain control over the land and has raised questions about whether any Indians buried there were actually Quapaw.

"The report provided by the tribe does not offer definitive proof identifying the remains as that of the Quapaw people," Hutchinson wrote in a June 11 letter to Scott Meneely, an official with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

John House, an archaeologist at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, said the graves, which are from the early 1600s or earlier, could contain Quapaw graves or those of other Indians.

"They certainly have something to do with Quapaw history," he said.

Sean Harrison, a spokesman for the tribe, said the graves are Quapaw.

Hutchinson wrote that if the land were placed into trust, Arkansas would lose its ability to protect any artifacts discovered on the land. He also noted that the land is more than 300 miles from Quapaw headquarters in Oklahoma.

"I am concerned as to what extent the tribal law would be administered on the land in question considering the distance to the tribal government," Hutchinson wrote.

A legal brief submitted with Hutchinson's letter says that Arkansas law better protects the graves on the land than federal law and that the "burial sites in question would be rendered vulnerable" if the land is put into trust.

The brief also mentioned the federal lawsuit in Topeka over the Quapaw land in Kansas where the tribe wants to expand its Downstream Casino and Resort, which is immediately across the border in Oklahoma. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt is seeking an injunction to prevent that expansion.

Arkansas officials say the tribe wants to establish a casino on the land. The tribe says it has no immediate plans for a casino but has not ruled out the possibility.

Downstream, near Joplin, is the tribe's only casino.

A possible first

No land in Arkansas is in tribal trust. If the Bureau of Indian Affairs approves putting the land into trust, the Quapaw Tribe would have the right to self-govern there. Businesses on the land would be exempt from property taxes and some local regulation.

Recommended for you