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Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission Heading Toward Final Days

The end of this spring’s Oklahoma legislative session created what could potentially become a historic change in the relations between the state and its 39 tribes. HB 2172, which effectively dissolved the 43-year-old Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission, will transfer this body’s authority solely to the executive branch.

HB 2172 states that the governor’s office has until December 1, 2011 to appoint an Oklahoma Native American Liaison who is of at least ¼ Indian blood. Language in the bill provides the potential for the Liaison to become “Secretary of Native American Affairs,” although there is no guarantee for this to become a permanent cabinet-level position. Primary duties for the Liaison will include the negotiation of agreements and the monitoring of tribal-state compacts. Also included in the bill is the creation of a Native American Cultural and Educational Authority with seven appointed members.

According to reports from the Tulsa World, Oklahoma tribes only had six days notice about this bill. However, OIAC executive director Barbara Warner, an enrolled member of the Ponca Nation, said this has been attempted by previous legislatures.

“It’s not necessarily this administration,” said Warner. “This administration was one that was successful in writing a more effective bill.” This bill passed on May 20 and was signed into law by Governor Mary Fallin, R-Okla.

Created in 1967, the OIAC consisted of a nine-member board appointed by the governor with state senate approval. Four members were selected from tribes who lived in the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Eastern Oklahoma Region, four members were selected from the BIA Southern Plains Region, and one was an at-large appointee. A Chair and Vice-Chair was then selected from this body, with an executive director to run day-to-day affairs. The OIAC also had ex officio members and an advisory committee of up to 15 members.

With budget cuts, the OIAC staff consisted of two members—Warner as executive director and an administrative assistant, Angela Atauvich of the Comanche Nation. Although it was at times only a two-person staff, they knew how to work around budget cuts.

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“Indians are used to being poor,” Warner said jokingly. “We knew how to survive.”

At press time, the OIAC staff’s duties include working with state personnel on a full audit and cataloging office equipment to meet a final work day of June 30, which would be the end of the OIAC fiscal year. Warner said they were also sorting through which files and equipment was better suited for donation to the Oklahoma History Center, based in Oklahoma City on the state capitol grounds.

According to Warner, items such as state-issued cell phones are to be turned over to the governor’s office, with incoming calls on landline phones to be forwarded to the governor’s office. The OIAC website will also direct visitors to contact the governor’s office.

“Serving as an advocate for positive state-tribal relations has been our greatest accomplishment,” Warner said about her term as executive director. “When I started here 18 years ago, the climate up on the Hill was extremely cold. We had unbelievable bills that were being introduced that would affect tribes and Indian citizens. We had a lot of friends up there that stopped all of those things.”

Warner said that she hoped Oklahoma’s tribes and the state government would continue to foster a stronger relationship. However, she also said that she is “really concerned about some of the issues that are coming up that will cause barriers or gaps between the state and the tribes.” For Warner, the primary issue for Oklahoma tribes was water rights, sharing a statement she attributed to current assistant secretary of Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk that “Ninety percent of all the water in Oklahoma belongs to the tribes.”

Warner said that she will continue her tribal advocacy work after June 30, in addition to spending time with family.

”I’m the primary caregiver for my 90-year-old mother who’s still very active,” said Warner. “I’m going to spend more quality time with her. I have a brand new six-month-old granddaughter, Anna Ross. I’m going to spend some time with her. I’ve always worked in the realm where I’m dealing with Indian issues. I’m going to continue that.”