‘We’re Being Wrapped in Poison’: A Century of Oil and Gas Development Has Devastated the Ponca City Region of Northern Oklahoma

From abandoned wells to refineries, hydraulic fracturing and man-made earthquakes, the destruction has poisoned air, land and water. Now the Ponca Tribe is fighting back.

Smoke from the Phillips 66 refinery in Ponca City billows a short distance from the Standing Bear Museum and Educational Center, where benzene continues to contaminate the groundwater. Oil rights were taken from the Ponca Tribe in north central Oklahoma and then exploited by the oil and gas industry with little thought given to environmental protection. Credit: Phil McKenna

Smoke from the Phillips 66 refinery in Ponca City billows a short distance from the Standing Bear Museum and Educational Center, where benzene continues to contaminate the groundwater. Oil rights were taken from the Ponca Tribe in north central Oklahoma and then exploited by the oil and gas industry with little thought given to environmental protection. Credit: Phil McKenna

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PONCA CITY, Oklahoma—When Earl “Trey” Howe III returned home here after four years of military service, the first thing he noticed was the smell.

Howe grew up in and around Ponca City, the site of the Phillips 66 refinery, one of the oldest and largest crude oil refineries and tank farms in the country. The smell from the plant—a sulfur-rich odor somewhere between rotten eggs and freshly paved asphalt—was so constant, he’d never even noticed it. 

But now, it seemed to follow him everywhere. 

“Depending on which way the wind is blowing, I’ll get a stronger whiff on some days than others,” Howe, 51, the former chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, said. “It’s overpowering sometimes.”

A soft-spoken, 6’4” father of three, Howe lives just a few blocks from the refinery, in the house where his grandparents once lived.  Sometimes at night the flares, which burn off excess hydrocarbons that can not be easily recovered or recycled, are so bright and so loud—the whoosh of flames sounds like a jet engine—they can be seen and heard from miles away.

“You could feel it more than hear it,” Howe said of a recent flaring that shook the ground and left him wondering if he and his family should evacuate. It was “like I was sitting next to a bomb.”  

Ponca business committee member Earl “Trey” Howe III served as chairman of the Ponca tribe in 2018 when the Ponca Nation became the first tribe in the United States to sign a rights of nature resolution into law. Credit: Ryan RedCorn

Ponca City takes its name from the Ponca Tribe, a Native American tribe that lives nearby. For more than a century, the region, in north central Oklahoma, has been ravaged by the environmental degradation associated with oil and gas development. 

From abandoned oil and gas wells to refineries, tank farms and hydraulic fracturing, the pollution and destruction—including damage from thousands of man-made earthquakes—have exacted a heavy toll on the region’s air, land, water and people.

In many ways, Ponca City and its 24,000, predominantly white inhabitants are well off. Its schools, library, sports centers, parks and concert hall would be the envy of most small towns in America.

But interviews with local residents, historical records, legal depositions and internal government reports tell of a sacrifice zone, where oil rights were first taken from the Ponca Tribe and then exploited by the oil and gas industry with little thought given to environmental protection.

The resulting development has left homes enveloped in toxic fumes, black slime oozing from basements, emissions of fine particulate matter that can damage the heart and lungs and walls cracked from earthquakes induced by injecting wastewater from hydraulic fracking deep underground. In one case, the fumes were so overpowering a family was forced to leave their home for several years.

Groundwater contamination from what is now the Phillips 66 refinery led to one of the largest environmental settlements in U.S. history, with the company buying and razing an entire neighborhood in the early 1990s.

But the contamination wasn’t entirely eliminated: Over the last 20 years, the refinery’s owners have bought out and leveled dozens of additional homes, for unstated reasons. But through a review of county property records and well-monitoring data provided by state regulators, Inside Climate News has found that the location of the houses closely tracks unsafe levels of benzene and other contaminants in groundwater, a fact that has not previously been reported. And Phillips 66 has continued to remove contaminants like petroleum oil, gasoline or diesel fuel from extraction wells near the neighborhood.

A Devastated Region

Bernardo Fallas, director of corporate communications for Phillips 66 said the company conducts its operations in a manner that protects human health, the community and the environment.  

In White Eagle, the headquarters of the Ponca Tribe, several miles downstream, where the Arkansas River and Salt Fork of the Arkansas River meet, the pollution has been especially damaging. Children once swam in the waters while people fished from its banks. In recent years fish have washed up dead along the shoreline, killed by a still-unidentified pollutant. Water from private wells in the community are no longer fit for drinking, gardens are contaminated with pollution and inhalers are as common as cell phones.  

“We’re being killed as surely as when they brought us the smallpox blankets, and wrapped us in poison,” said Casey Camp-Horinek, a tribal elder and official environmental ambassador for the Ponca Tribe. “We’re being wrapped in a poison that kills the air, the water and the Earth, and that kills my people.”

‘We Have to Find a Way Forward’

The degradation in and around Ponca City is emblematic of the systemic, long-term devastation of the environment that a group of lawyers and advocates are pushing to make  an international crime. The campaign aims to treat “ecocide” in the same way as genocide or crimes against humanity, offenses that are prosecuted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Criminalizing ecocide is likely to take years, if it succeeds at all, and even then, many challenges would remain. The law could only be applied to future crimes, and the United States is not a member of the international court, so the impact of its petroleum industry might remain outside the law.

But the Ponca Tribe isn’t waiting on legal wrangling half-a-world away. The tribe is seeking protection under a parallel effort known as the rights of nature, a legal movement that has sprung up in countries around the globe in recent decades, seeking to grant legal rights to rivers, forests and wildlife. 

In 2018, the Ponca Nation became the first tribe in the United States to sign into law a rights of nature resolution, and the tribe is now working on an additional rule that would give added protection to the rivers that run through their community. 

“We have to find a way forward,” Camp-Horinek said.  

The rights of nature approach, she said, more closely aligns with an Indigenous understanding of the environment, in which human beings are a part of nature, not separate from it. “We are nature protecting itself,” she said. 

The legal standing of the rights of nature remains unclear. So far, no U.S. court has upheld a rights of nature law, and courts that have ruled on whether rights of nature can be enforced have all said they cannot. As more Indigenous and other communities pass rules on the rights of nature, however, that could change. 

If courts do rule in favor of the rights of nature, the implications for oil and gas companies operating near the Ponca Tribe could be significant. The tribe’s 2018 resolution includes a provision that, if a corporation is found guilty of an offense related to the rights of nature, the chairman of the board of the corporation will be held liable, with a maximum sentence of a year in prison and a $5,000 fine per day for each offense

Such protections may be needed now more than ever.

Although a landmark, 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling delivered greater tribal sovereignty for Native communities in Oklahoma, state efforts to fight the ruling could jeopardize what limited environmental regulations currently exist on Indigenous lands.

“It has messed with our ability for the Clean Water Act to be successfully implemented and for the Clean Air Act to be successfully implemented,” Camp-Horinek, a leader of the rights of nature movement for the tribe and for tribes globally, said.  “So we are using the rights of the river as a possible way to protect the Ponca people.”

‘I Hope I Don’t Have to Move’

On a drive around the southern edge of Ponca City,  Howe, a member of Ponca’s tribal council or “business committee,” brings his silver Ford Explorer to a stop next to a culvert, where a small stream flows out of the Phillips 66 refinery on its way to the Arkansas River.

“Me and my friends would ride our bicycles down here,” he says, pointing to the now fenced-off drainage ditch where he used to bike as a kid.  

“It’d be grayish and sometimes, reflecting off the light, you could see a rainbow of colors,” Howe said of the water.  

Howe and his friends once rode their bikes along this drainage ditch on the east side of what is now the Phillips 66 refinery. The surrounding neighborhood was leveled in the early 90s due to groundwater contamination. Credit: Phil McKenna

The creek flows through what used to be a thriving, low-income, Indigenous, Black, Hispanic and white community with its own grocery store, church and school.

The school closed in the late 1970s, after dozens of students began fainting from fumes from the nearby refinery.

In 1989, residents from the neighborhood sued Conoco, the owner of the refinery at the time, after black slime began oozing into their basements. The residents claimed unusually high rates of cancer, respiratory problems, birth defects, skin rashes and other illnesses they believed were linked to an underground spill from a tank or pipes at the refinery. They pointed to Conoco’s own water samples that showed elevated levels of benzene in the groundwater. 

As part of the settlement, Conoco agreed to buy and either tear down or relocate about 400 homes near the refinery, although the company never admitted fault for any adverse health effects. All that remains of the community that was once there is the brick archway entrance to the school. 

But ConocoPhillips and the subsequent owner of the refinery, Phillips 66, have torn down more than three dozen other houses since then in a residential neighborhood east of the refinery. The buyouts track closely with areas where the concentration of benzene in the groundwater exceeds the EPA’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 0.005 milligrams per liter, according to a map from 2014 that is part of the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality’s permit for the refinery. Benzene occurs naturally in crude oil and is produced during the refining of gasoline. Long-term exposure has been associated with leukemia.

Phillips 66 also has continued to remove tens of thousands of gallons of “light nonaqueous phase liquid”—contaminants such as petroleum oil, gasoline or diesel fuel—from extraction wells near that site in recent years, according to data from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. 

A 1990 settlement between Conoco and Ponca City residents living near the refinery resulted in the company buying out and either tearing down or relocating approximately 400 homes. However, the buy outs didn’t end there as the company has continued to purchase and remove dozens of additional homes in the neighborhood since the settlement, as shown in these satellite images from 2004 to 2019. Credit: Google Earth

Fallas, the Phillips 66 corporate communications director, acknowledged the continuing purchases and the fact that the company has continued to remediate pollution.

“Since the early 1990s, Phillips 66 (then Conoco and ConocoPhillips) has worked cooperatively with state regulators to continue remediation and monitoring of groundwater beneath and surrounding the Ponca City Refinery,” Fallas said.

He added, “As part of our state permitting requirements, impacted groundwater is drawn back to the refinery for recovery and treatment. Phillips 66 has purchased and continues to purchase property near the refinery that meets certain criteria to increase the buffer zone between the community and the refinery.”  

Overall pollution levels in the area have gone down over the past 20 years, Erin Hatfield, communications director for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, said, but added,”That said, a number of wells are still over the MCL for benzene.”

Howe lives only a few blocks from the most recent buyouts.

He said he worries that the underground spill that resulted in the mass-buyout in the 1990s may now be spreading into his neighborhood.

“I hope I don’t have to move,” he said.

A House From Hell

A few blocks from Howe’s home and a block from the most recent spot where Phillips 66 is buying out houses sits one of the most extreme examples of the fallout from the region’s more than 100 years of oil and gas development. In 2013, Chris and Sherry Walls and their four children had to flee from their home after the local gas company discovered the house was enveloped in a cloud of methane gas. 

The Walls spent three years living out of hotels and rental properties before the Oklahoma Corporation Commission installed a ventilation system designed to suck gas from beneath the house and vent it above their rooftop. The Walls returned home soon after, but the ventilation system only made matters worse, so the family stopped using it. 

Still grieving from the death of one of their sons, wracked with debt exacerbated by the constant moves and unable to find the source of the leak, Chris Walls may have found it to be more than he could take. On June 18, 2017, Father’s Day, Sherry found her husband’s body hanging in their garage.

“I think our house had a lot to do with it,” she said. 

Four years after her husband’s death, Sherry Walls and her daughter Diamond are living in a house still enveloped by gas. ​​An internal Oklahoma Corporation Commission report from 2018, viewed by Inside Climate News, concluded there is a “possible well location on the Walls property or even under the house.” Gas wells were drilled in the neighborhood around 1910 and are among an estimated 25,000 to 100,000 “orphaned” wells in the state, for which the operator is unknown or no longer exists. 

Sherry Walls and her daughter Diamond live in a house enveloped by methane, likely due to an abandoned gas well that was drilled more than a century ago near, or possibly beneath, their home in Ponca City.
Sherry Walls and her daughter Diamond live in a house enveloped by methane, likely due to an abandoned gas well that was drilled more than a century ago near, or possibly beneath, their home in Ponca City. Credit: Phil McKenna

Walls said the Ponca City mayor and Phillips 66 had offered to relocate her to a new house, but it was smaller than her current home, she said, and she declined. Ponca City officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Sharon Wilson, a gas imaging specialist with Earthworks, an environmental advocacy organization based in Washington, visited Walls’ home in 2017, soon after Chris Walls died. Using a thermal camera, she looked at the images and was appalled not only by the volume of gas she saw billowing from the ventilation system but the gas she smelled as she stood outside the home. 

“I don’ t know how they can live there,” Wilson said. “The state should have done something about it a long time ago. It’s a failure of the regulatory agency.”

Oklahoma Corporation Commission spokesman Matt Skinner said the ventilation system that his agency installed solved the problem.  

“It worked perfectly,” Skinner said. “We literally moved, if not heaven, the earth and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to [get to] a place where it wasn’t seeping gas,” Skinner said.  

However, the 2018 internal Oklahoma Corporation Commission report came to the opposite conclusion.  

“The Corporation Commission’s Oil and Gas Division, along with all the people who have worked on this situation, are very disappointed that the extraction remediation effort fell short of our goal,” the report stated. “It is apparent that efforts at the surface to divert the stray gas are—futile.”

This Will Bring ‘Bad Medicine’

In 1908, not long after the last land run in the newly formed state of Oklahoma and the year Henry Ford unveiled the Model T, an oil prospector from the East arrived on the Cherokee Strip. E.W. Marland, a wildcatter and lawyer who had already made and lost an oil fortune in Pennsylvania, spent the next three years drilling dry wells, while living on credit at the Arcade hotel in Ponca City.  

An amateur practitioner of the emerging field of geology, Marland took an interest in a hillside southwest of town that he believed to be a geologic dome, a cap under which might lie a vast reservoir of oil.

The land belonged to Willie Cries for War, a member of the Ponca Tribe, which the U.S. Army had forced from its ancestral homelands in Nebraska to what is now Oklahoma some 30 years before.

The outcrop where Marland wanted to drill was a sacred site for the Ponca, offering commanding views towards their homeland in the north and the confluence of the Salt Fork and Arkansas Rivers to the southeast, a reminder of their earlier home, where the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers meet. The hilltop also was a tribal cemetery, where bodies were placed on top of wooden scaffolds, rather than buried underground.

Drilling into the hilltop was out of the question. But, with the help of some local ranchers—who, depending on the historical account, were either benevolent protectors of the Ponca or vultures who preyed on them at every turn—Marland gained permission to drill a short distance downslope from the cemetery.

When the well came in as a gusher, White Eagle, one of the last Ponca chiefs, warned that it would bring “bad medicine” for him, his people and for Marland, the oil baron later recalled. 

“He said this will all come back to impact all of us,” Camp-Horinek said. “And we’re living in that time.”

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After Marland struck oil, Cries for War, who was 19 at the time, was well compensated in royalty payments for the lease he signed, enough for him to live well in his younger years. He bought a large house and several vehicles, and hired a cook, maid and driver.

But Cries for War was the exception among the Ponca. The Miller brothers—the ranchers who helped Marland negotiate the lease—bought or leased tens of thousands of acres from the Ponca, including the mineral rights that went with the land. In return, the ranchers, owners of the 101 Ranch, often paid no more than a sack or flour or potatoes and a few scraps of meat, according to “The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West,” by historian Michael Wallis. 

In 1920, a federal grand jury indicted the Miller brothers on what ultimately grew to 49 criminal counts, charging them with defrauding the Ponca of large tracts of land. The brothers pled guilty to illegally acquiring Indian land valued at more than $380,000, although the ruling was later overturned in a federal appeals court.  

“It always bothered me to see the Miller Brothers played up as heroes when they defrauded Indians of land greater in value than train and bank robberies committed by the Daltons, Doolins, James and other bandits combined,” Ferdie Deering, a longtime columnist for the Daily Oklahoman and editor for the Farmer-Stockman magazine, later wrote.

‘Downstream From All That Waste’

Sitting in his print shop in the village of White Eagle, Howe recalled how his great uncle, Willie Cries for War, once sucked stingers out of his neck after he’d been stung by bees.

Howe, whose black-rimmed glasses end in neon green at the temples, remembers Cries for War as a penniless elder, his money long gone, living in a spare bedroom of his grandparents’ home.

The oil well drilled on land that used to belong to his great uncle was the beginning of what became the Conoco and later the ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66 empire. Marland, the oil-man who talked Cries for War into allowing drilling on his land, became one of the richest men in the world, building a “palace on the prairie” in Ponca City, from which he played the role of a British nobleman, hosting fox hunts and polo matches for the city’s more affluent white community.

In 1918, Marland built an oil refinery, the Phillips 66 refinery in Ponca City, a few blocks from where Howe now lives. Soon after opening, the refinery began to dump its petroleum waste into the Arkansas River.

Formerly belonging to Conoco and later ConocoPhillips, the Phillips 66 refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma is one of the oldest and largest refineries in the country. Credit: Phil McKenna

For the Ponca Tribe, based several miles downstream in the village of White Eagle, that was the beginning of the contamination of their drinking water supply. Though the tribe recently built a new water supply system, many in the community fear it, too, is contaminated and they rely primarily on bottled water. 

“Conoco flourished and continues to flourish at the expense of those downstream from it,” Howe said. “And instead of making things right for the tribe that began their oil production—we should have been one of the wealthiest tribes in not just Oklahoma but the country—we’re downstream from all that waste.”

As a member of the Ponca City Chamber of Commerce board of directors, Howe tries to build better relations between the predominantly white community and the Ponca Nation. Growing up Indigenous in and around Ponca City, he said, he often felt invisible. As a child, he excelled at basketball and could dunk by his sophomore year of high school, but he was overlooked for Ponca City’s varsity squad, something he attributes to being the only Indigenous kid on the team.

Ponca business committee member Earl “Trey” Howe III is the director of Ponca Custom T’s & Embroidery, a print shop in White Eagle, Oklahoma, just south of Ponca City. Credit: Phil McKenna

Howe is a prominent figure in the region, a former chief of police for White Eagle and the current police commissioner for the neighboring Otoe–Missouria Tribe. But when he does errands in Ponca City, he said, people—from gas station attendants to the staff of the Lowe’s home improvement store—often look past him to help a white person standing behind him.

Ben Waters, Trey’s grandfather on his mother’s side, worked for the refinery, helping to weld many of the large oil tanks across the sprawling, nearly four-square mile facility.  Earl Howe Senior, his grandfather on his dad’s side, had cancer though he didn’t die from it. All three of his grandfather’s brothers and Trey’s father, Earl Howe Junior, died from cancer.

Kay County, including Ponca City and the village of White Eagle, has one of the highest cancer rates in the state.  

Howe doesn’t use fancy terms like “genocide” or “ecocide,” but he wonders, nonetheless, if the refinery was to blame for so many deaths.

“There are a lot of other tribal members who died from cancer,” Howe said.  “I don’t know if any of those are a direct link, but I think there’s an abnormal rate of cancer that could be related to that.”

‘This is Bad, Bad Stuff Going On Here’

If the fumes and contaminated water were not enough of a threat in the region, until recently a fine black powder routinely covered the cars, lawns, clothing and pets of the people who lived just south of Ponca City.

Just past the Ponca City city limits on highway 177, a petrochemical plant operated by the Continental Carbon Company manufactures carbon black, an incredibly fine powder made from low value, heavy oil by-products at the Phillips 66 refinery just to the north. 

Carbon black is used to strengthen tires and as a pigment in inks. It is also a potential carcinogen that can penetrate deep inside human lungs. 

“The particles are so fine that if you tossed them in the air and didn’t have any wind, they would stay airborne for two days,” Camp-Horinek said.

An elder and official environmental ambassador of the Ponca Tribe, Casey Camp-Horinek is working with tribal leaders to adopt a second rights of nature resolution to protect the rivers that run through her people’s land. Credit: Ryan RedCorn

In the early 2000s, tribal members living near the plant raised the issue with Camp-Horinek’s brother, Carter Camp, an Indigenous rights advocate and former leader of the American Indian Movement. In a push for greater tribal sovereignty, he helped lead a months-long armed standoff with federal agents at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 1973,  for which he spent three years in prison.    

“They came to my brother Carter, and said, ‘Look, this is bad, bad, bad stuff going on here. Our children are being born with cancer. We’re dying from what it’s doing to us,’” Camp- Horinek said.  

The Camp family and other members of the Ponca Tribe decided to take on Continental Carbon. They teamed up with a workers union inside the plant and sent a delegation to the parent company’s headquarters in Taiwan, where they held a hunger strike to protest the lax environmental controls at the Ponca City plant.   

Without admitting any fault, Continental Carbon agreed to a $10.5 million settlement with the Ponca Tribe in 2009 that included tearing down 11 nearby houses and providing relocation funding for those who had lived there.

A row of driveways along the highway that give way to a field of grass and shade trees are all that remain of what were once low-income homes for families.  

“I’m not happy with it,” Camp-Horinek said. “Because what they did not do is stop Continental Carbon from operating in the same manner as they always have. It’s still going on and they did not get further medical care for all of the people that were impacted by it.” 

In 2015, the company entered into a consent decree with the EPA and the Department of Justice to invest $98 million in pollution controls at the Ponca City plant, and similar carbon black plants in Alabama and Texas.

In 2018, the Trump administration granted the company an extension, giving the Oklahoma plant until April of this year to begin pollution controls to reduce emissions of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides.

​​Dennis Hetu, president of Continental Carbon, said the additional pollution controls at the company’s Ponca City plant are now complete.

​​”The consent decree said I had to have it up and running this year and it’s up and running,” he said. 

However, an EPA spokeswoman said installation of the pollution controls have not in fact been completed at the Ponca City plant. 

“Technical issues associated with the installation of controls and Winter Storm Uri have caused delays,” the spokeswoman said, referring to the ice and snow storm that caused widespread power outages in Texas in February.    

In operation since 1918, the Phillips 66 refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma has played a major role in the environmental degradation from oil and gas development that has ravaged the region. Credit: Phil McKenna

‘If You Can Imagine Being That Child’ 

Fighting for environmental protection and for the rights of Indigenous people in the face of extreme adversity is in many ways, a part of the Ponca DNA, Camp-Horinek’s, in particular. 

On a blazing hot August afternoon in the Clyde Warrior Memorial building in White Eagle, a building named after a Ponca youth leader and prominent civil rights activist in the 1960s, Camp-Horinek recounts how her people came to live in Oklahoma. It was a forced relocation that, as she described it, her people should not have even survived.

“My grandfather was around 6 years old at that time, when they came into our village site and rounded us up like cowboys would herd cattle, at the point of a gun, with bayonets at our backs,” Camp-Horinek, 73, said. “They forced us to leave our homes without our food, without our hunting equipment, without our cooking equipment, without our seeds and walk nearly 700 miles.”

After arriving in what is now Oklahoma in 1877, one in every three members of the Ponca Tribe soon died from starvation and disease.

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One of the Ponca chiefs, Standing Bear, promised his only son, who at age 16 lay in a canvas army tent dying of malaria, that he would grant his final wish, returning his body to their homeland in the north. 

“He escaped with his son and went back to Níʼ bdáska, or now called Nebraska, and after a series of legal moves, was declared the first Native to be called a human being under the eyes of the law,” Camp-Horinek said of a legal ruling that was a landmark for not just the Ponca, but for all Native Americans. “Up until that time, we weren’t even considered to be human beings.”  

The stories of those who came before her have had a large influence on Camp-Horinek, who has dedicated much of her adult life to environmental activism and chairs the Indigenous Council for the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, an organization advocating for the rights of nature worldwide. Working with a tribal attorney, she helped craft the Ponca Tribe’s first rights of nature resolution, and she is now working on a second resolution that would provide added protection to the rivers that flow through her people’s land.

She describes her own childhood as that of a brown child growing up in extreme poverty. The youngest of six children in a family of migrant farm workers, she attended 12 different schools and, in a desperate attempt to make friends, allowed herself to be “born again” into seven different Christian churches. 

“If you can imagine being that child,” Camp-Horinek said, “and not being able to understand the full impact of what the system had laid on her, and on the other hand… knowing I am a Ponca, knowing I was the granddaughter of chiefs and great granddaughter of war chiefs and survivors.”

“Those dualities, left me an ability to be awakened into who I was supposed to be,” she said.

‘Earthquake Capital of the World’

In 2015, Camp-Horinek’s activism and Howe’s work on the tribal council came together. 

In May 2015, Howe, who had recently been elected chairman of the Ponca Tribe, received a federal grant to construct a veterans’ memorial at the Ponca tribal cemetery to honor members of the community who had fought for their country.  

The Ponca cemetery lies half a mile south down the hillcrest from where Willie Cries for War once owned the 120 acres he would later lease to Marland. The site still offers sweeping views of the Salt Fork to the southeast. When the leaves fall from the cottonwood trees each fall, you can see where the Salt Fork empties into the Arkansas River a couple of miles downstream. 

But a new, larger hill, the Ponca City landfill just to the north, now towers over the cemetery, partially blocking views of the Ponca’s ancestral homelands in Nebraska. 

“I would imagine our people stood here and looked in all directions and this was the perfect spot to memorialize our people that passed on in view of the river and what looked like their homeland,” Howe said.  “Now a big portion of that to the north is obstructed by this big mound of trash.”

On a hill southwest of Ponca City, the Ponca Tribal cemetery offers sweeping views of the nearby Salt Fork and Arkansas Rivers. But, a new, larger hill, the Ponca City landfill just to the north, towers over the cemetery, partially blocking views toward the Ponca’s ancestral homelands in Nebraska. Credit: Phil McKenna

As Howe walked the rows of headstones in the cemetery to make sure he had identified all the veterans buried there, he couldn’t help but notice how many of his community members had died at an early age. 

In the tribal council, Howe’s concern about the oil industry’s pollution found fellowship with Camp-Horinek’s activism. The two did not know each other well, but they knew of each other’s families, and Howe was familiar with the Camp family’s history of activism. 

When Camp-Horinek ran for a seat on the Ponca tribal council and won, they began working together closely, and one of their first targets was hydraulic fracturing. Camp-Horinek had recently spoken out against fracking at a public hearing at the Oklahoma state capitol.

By 2016, earthquakes created by fracking were reaching epic proportions in Oklahoma, caused not by fracking itself but by the injection of large volumes of wastewater deep underground. Before the state’s fracking boom in the late 2000s, Oklahoma averaged two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater per year. By 2015, that number had soared to 903 earthquakes in a single year, more than twice the number of similarly-sized earthquakes recorded in California that year, making Oklahoma the “earthquake capital of the world.”  On Sept. 3, 2016 , a 5.8 magnitude earthquake, the largest in state history, hit 15 miles southeast of White Eagle near Pawnee, Oklahoma.  

At the same time, fish in the Salt Fork river were washing up dead near the tribe’s powwow grounds in White Eagle. News reports later suggested that a leaking tanker truck near a wastewater injection well site may have been the cause, but an investigation by state regulators was inconclusive.

Matt Skinner, of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission said they found no evidence linking the tanker truck, or other oil and gas operations in the area to the fish kill. Skinner said there have been die-off events recorded in the river for decades because of the water’s naturally occuring high salinity, which gives the river its name.   

In February 2016, the Ponca tribal council, with Howe as chairman and Camp-Horinek as a newly elected member, passed a resolution banning fracking on Ponca land. The following year, at Camp-Horinek’s urging, the Ponca business committee passed the first rights of nature resolution approved by a tribe in the United States.

“We have to pay attention to our behavior and what we are doing as a species, or simply cease to exist so that the Earth can heal,” Camp-Horinek said. “She will endure, whether the human species endures or not, I think we are at a point of choice there.”

‘A Way to Protect the Ponca People’

The Ponca Tribe is now in the process of developing a second rights of nature resolution, for the Arkansas and Salt Fork rivers, which Camp-Horinek says would give the rivers stronger legal protections.

Such protections come as the enforcement of environmental regulations on Native lands has been called into question. Following the Supreme Court ruling, McGirt v. Oklahoma,  that returned tribal sovereignty to much of eastern Oklahoma last year, Gov. Kevin Stitt has sought to claw back state control.

In one such effort, Stitt’s administration invoked a long-dormant rider that Oklahoma Senator and fossil fuel proponent James Inhofe attached to a transportation bill in 2005. The rider grants the state of Oklahoma, rather than Native American tribes or the EPA, the authority to administer environmental regulations in Indian county.

For the Ponca, as well as for many of the state’s other tribal nations, control of environmental regulations on tribal land by a state they feel is dominated by oil and gas interests is cause for more than a little concern. The industry is so influential in Oklahoma that the state capitol building is “the only capitol in the world surrounded by working oil wells,” according to the Oklahoma House of Representatives. One of them, called “Our Petunia’ was drilled in the middle of a flower bed on the capitol building’s lawn.

“Gov. Stitt used that rider to take over our environmental protection laws,” Camp-Horkinek said. “We are using the rights of the river as a possible way to protect the Ponca people.”

‘Something Needs to Happen Here’

Driving north from the Ponca Tribal cemetery, Howe heads towards his great uncle’s former allotment. He is halted by a gate and a “no trespassing” sign at top of the hill on the north side of the landfill. The view from this side of the landfill looks a lot different from what Howe’s ancestors would have seen from the place where they once laid their deceased on raised scaffolds.  

A pile of brush that has been set on fire—in an apparent expansion of the city landfill—burns, unattended, in a shallow pit dug into the crest of the hillside. A short distance beyond, a pumpjack whirs as it sucks oil out of the earth. Further afield, the tanks and stacks of the Phillips 66 refinery mark the Ponca City skyline. 

Wells have been extracting oil and gas from north central Oklahoma for more than 100 years. Regulators estimate 25,000 to 100,000 “orphaned” wells lie buried underground across the state. Credit: Phil McKenna

But looking out over his ancestor’s former land, Howe also sees signs of hope. In addition to the fires and fossil fuel extraction infrastructure, the pinwheels of distant wind farms dot the horizon in nearly every direction. In recent years, a number of large wind farms have been built in the area, though so far none belonging to the tribe. 

Howe said he’d like to buy an electric vehicle. Wind energy, he said, could be a solution for the entire Ponca Nation’s transportation needs.  

“If you took just one turbine, it could feed our whole community,” Howe said.

Casey Camp-Horinek and U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland at COP26, the United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Haaland is wearing a personalized blanket, a gift from the Ponca Tribe. Photo Courtesy of Casey Camp-Horinek
Casey Camp-Horinek and U.S. Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland at COP26, the United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Haaland is wearing a personalized blanket, a gift from the Ponca Tribe. Photo Courtesy of Casey Camp-Horinek

But Howe and the Ponca Tribe aren’t stopping there. Further afield, far beyond even what Howe can see from the hilltop, Camp-Horinek recently traveled to Glasgow, Scotland on behalf of the tribe to COP26, the United Nations climate summit. There she met with U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, the first Native American to head the Interior Department. 

Camp-Horinek presented Haaland with a personalized blanket, a gift from the Ponca Tribe embroidered by Howe, and pressed her tribe’s case for rights of nature protections. It’s unclear how the meeting or the rights of nature resolutions will ultimately affect the tribe, but the efforts are worth pursuing, Howe said. 

“Something needs to happen here,” he said.