ANADARKO, Okla. – As late summer rolls toward November during an election year, many candidates take time to visit summer festivals, shaking hands and taking pictures with potential voters. But the only state-level candidate to seek votes at the weeklong annual American Indian Exposition in Anadarko was the state’s incumbent Democratic governor, Brad Henry, seeking re-election against Republican challenger and congressman Ernest Istook, who represents Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District.
After speaking to a crowd Aug. 12, Henry spoke to Indian Country Today for an exclusive interview about Native issues that concern Oklahoma. During Henry’s term, the Oklahoma governor has made a personal effort toward bipartisanship and a respect for tribal sovereignty, which has included an expansion of tribal gaming and economic gain for both the tribes and the state.
“Today, the Native American tribes in Oklahoma are better positioned economically, as well as in terms of overall quality of life, than ever before,” said Henry. “There’s lots of work to be done. Now, we recognize in the state that the best thing we can do is partner with our Native American tribes to provide services for all Oklahomans – Native American or non-Native American.”
Henry estimated that tribes in Oklahoma have a $12 billion to $15 billion annual economic impact, with an additional $1 billion in annual federal money coming into the state for the tribes. Henry also said that tribes “are the biggest employer in the state of Oklahoma.” He also gave credit to Native culture and heritage as a tourist and economic draw for those outside of Oklahoma. One project that started during Henry’s term is an American Indian cultural center that is under construction in Oklahoma City that Henry said will eventually be the “premier Native American cultural and heritage center in the nation.” This cultural center is part of the Oklahoma centennial celebration, beginning in 2007.
Henry’s support of tribal sovereignty is straightforward.
“You won’t find anybody that has a greater respect for tribal sovereignty better than I do, period,” said Henry. “Going back to the removal of tribes from their homelands and forcing them to Oklahoma and the treaties we entered into – in particular, the federal government – hundreds of years ago, that we must live up to. We must respect tribal sovereignty, and I do.”
Henry credited tribal gaming as a direct contribution “to our economy and to our assets and to our resources.” Henry cited these contributions as transportation, healthcare and education.
ICT also asked Henry where he stood on English-only initiatives, which his opponent advocates in television ads. In Oklahoma, cities and towns such as Tahlequah use Native languages, such as Cherokee, in street signs and other official capacities.
“I think we have to be very careful not to offend and isolate our great Native American tribes in the state of Oklahoma,” said Henry. “It’s important for our tribes to preserve their original languages. I support that. I don’t have any idea what an English-only amendment would do to that. Obviously, I would want to see any details before I could possibly sign onto that. I think it’s one of those things that may sound good to some people, but resolves nothing and, at the same time, is offensive to many wonderful, upstanding, law-abiding Oklahomans.”
As for what more Oklahoma could do for Native people, Henry remains optimistic, seeing that the best solution for both Native tribes and the state is to work together.
“I think the best thing we could do is help the tribes help themselves,” he said. “Really, I think the way to best do that is to work with our great Native American sovereign nations, to partner with them. If there is a population within a Native American tribe that suffers, those are Oklahomans suffering. We ought to do everything within our power to help them and assist them.”