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Tribal Nations Hope New Interior Secretary Will Make Drilling Easier

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Deb Haaland has become the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history. The Interior Department she now leads has a history of oppressing America's Indigenous peoples. But many hope Haaland's confirmation will change that. The Osage Nation in northeastern Oklahoma is one of about a dozen tribal nations in the U.S. that have significant oil and gas reserves. The reserves are key to the tribe's economy, and its citizens are optimistic that Haaland will help them. Allison Herrera from member station KOSU in Oklahoma reports.

ALLISON HERRERA, BYLINE: The seat of the Osage Nation is the community of Pawhuska, home to millions of acres of tall grass prairie. That's where 72-year-old Julie Malone lives. She inherited the tribal oil and gas shares from her grandfather.

JULIE MALONE: That money is a cushion for my retirement. I will never be without anything knowing that that's there.

HERRERA: The most recent quarterly payment topped out at a little more than $2,500. But there was a time when those payments reached $40,000 quarterly. To her, though, it's more than just money. It's about a long history of the federal government trying to take what's theirs.

MALONE: We've had to, for more than a hundred years, fight every bit of the way.

HERRERA: That's why there's concern here in the Osage Nation over Deb Haaland's record opposing the fossil fuel industry and expanding environmental protections on public lands. She did make a point at her confirmation hearing that the ban on oil and gas leases doesn't extend to tribal lands. Everett Waller is the chairman of the Osage Minerals Council. He says having control over the land has been important for many generations.

EVERETT WALLER: My Osages believed we knew there's something there. We didn't know exactly what it is, but we knew that it might be very, very thoughtful to protect it now. And we did.

HERRERA: Waller is responsible for maximizing profits for Osage Nation shareholders, so he needs to get oil companies to come in and lease their land. He thinks Haaland will be good because she understands tribal sovereignty.

WALLER: I think that she will identify that I speak on behalf of the fossil fuel tribe, the oldest. So I'm going to look at, how do we face the future in production?

HERRERA: One of the problems Waller wants Haaland's help with is cutting through the red tape and bureaucracy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tribal nations have more hurdles to jump through to get oil and gas leases. That's why it's been so slow for the Osage Nation to obtain permits to drill. Nona Roach has experienced that red tape. She's worked with the Osage Minerals Council and has dealt with the BIA for the last several years on oil and gas leases.

NONA ROACH: When we were trying to get our leases approved and our permits approved to drill, we're taking over a hundred days, which is unheard of.

HERRERA: Roach, a member of the Cherokee Nation and a landowner within the Osage Nation, says Haaland is going to have to work with shareholders, landowners like herself and oil producers if she wants to get anything done in a place like Osage County. Back in Pawhuska, Julie Malone says she also supports Haaland because of her record and because she knows what it's like to be an Indigenous person living in the U.S.

MALONE: This is our home. And we have children and grandchildren that we want to make sure inherit a good home.

HERRERA: Malone and others within the Osage Nation know oil production on Osage land isn't going to last forever, but it's not going to end overnight. For NPR News, I'm Allison Herrera in Pawhuska, Okla.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "BEHIND THE WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.