BURBANK – With a dense fog draped across the Osage prairie, the wind turbines first came into view as twinkling red stars low on the horizon – two or three to begin with, then dozens, hovering above the grassy hilltops.
The giant blades, each as big as an airliner’s wing, can usually be seen for miles. But as several citizens of the Osage Nation drove toward them from all across the county, some coming from as far away as Tulsa, only the blinking lights on top were visible Friday morning until the turbines suddenly leaped out of the fog at close range.
Joe Conner called them “wind monsters.”
“They’re eating up the landscape,” he said. “They’re devouring our history and culture.”
The fog lifted and dawn began to spread an orange glow across the eastern sky as Conner stretched a blue tarp on the ground at a public right-of-way just north of U.S. 60 and Oklahoma 18, in the middle of the Osage Wind development, 15 minutes west of Pawhuska. At precisely 6:09 a.m., with the first tiny arc of the sun peeking above the horizon, a traditional prayer leader stepped onto the tarp and raised an eagle feather to bless the crowd. Two dozen Osage Indians, including the chief and at least three members of the tribal Congress, wrapped colorfully striped blankets around their shoulders and bowed their heads.
“We are pitiful and humble people, asking for your help,” Cameron Pratt prayed out loud, first in the Osage language and then in English, his voice nearly drowned out by the constant drone of the whirling blades. They sound like an aircraft passing high overhead, except the aircraft never flies away.
“Things keep being taken away from us,” Pratt continued to pray. “And it’s always under the guise of improvements, and yet it always seems to be at our expense.”
The tribe has been fighting wind development in Osage County for years, and by now the legal arguments are well known. Turbine construction requires digging a large pit for the foundation, disturbing limestone and other rocks that the tribe claims as part of its mineral estate. And the U.S. government, on behalf of the tribe, has filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the developers should have obtained a minerals permit – a permit the tribe likely would have denied.
But Conner and Pratt didn’t organize this sunrise prayer service to rehash the court case, which is still pending. Conner wanted to emphasize another aspect of the tribe’s grievance against the developers – what he calls “the spiritual and cultural side” of the argument.
Driven away from their ancestral homelands in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, the Osage bought this land – 1.4 million acres, or nearly twice the size of Rhode Island – and moved here in the early 1870s, some say after a tribal holy man had a vision of the rolling hills and sweeping plains.
“We are a praying people and put our faith in God,” said tribal Congressman John Maker. “God gave us this land and it was beautiful when we came here.”
The tribe owned the Osage Reservation collectively and resisted pressure to divide the land among individual citizens, even delaying Oklahoma statehood until Congress forced allotment in 1906. But the mineral estate remained collective property – a compromise that proved to be fortuitous after the oil boom.
Roughly 14,000 active wells still dot the landscape. And no, they aren’t exactly beautiful, said Principal Chief Geoffrey StandingBear. And yes, they have undoubtedly caused some pollution. But nothing compares to the “scenic blight” of nearly 100 gigantic wind turbines towering above the prairie, he said.
Developers say they hope to add as many as 68 more turbines on nearby properties, some of which would be visible from the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. And the tribe suspects that developers are negotiating additional leases across a wider patch of the county. StandingBear not only wants to stop more turbines from being built, but also hopes to see the existing ones taken down.
“This is driving out all our families; you can’t live among these things,” the chief said. “It’s a harsh form of pollution, and it should go away.”
Enel Green Power, an Italian company that owns Osage Wind, did not comment on the prayer service. It has denied the need for a minerals permit from the tribe and argues that it met all legal requirements before building the first turbines last November.
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