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Proposed English-only law opposed by Oklahoma tribal leaders

TULSA, Okla. - Tribal leaders in Oklahoma are opposing an "English-Only" initiative slated for the ballot in the next state election.

The proposal would make English the only language recognized in the state which opponents see as far-reaching discrimination aimed at minorities in Kansas.

Petitioners gathered enough signatures to place the proposal on the ballot and the Oklahoma Supreme Court is reviewing it. Minority leaders in the state plan to challenge the petition's legality.

The English-only initiative, if passed, won't allow the state to spend money to conduct business in any language other than English.

Tribal leaders from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) nations support a resolution opposing the ballot initiative. They believe it is not only discriminatory, but would have a strong, negative impact on Oklahoma's economy. The state spends $2.5 million on tourism with tourism offices in Japan, Brazil and Germany and it markets tourism in Switzerland and Austria. Tribal leaders are questioning whether the English-only law means closing down those offices, since they aren't using 'English-only.'

The Cherokee Nation's deputy chief, Hasting Shade said, "English is not in any danger of becoming extinct. And, if this ballot imitative were just a vote of confidence for the English language, I wouldn't be speaking against it. Instead, the hidden intent of this law is to make it harder for people of whom English is not their primary language to remain a part of Oklahoma's society.

"English is my second language, it shouldn't have to be my only one," the bilingual official said.

Republican Gov. Frank Keating, in a speech to the American Indian Chamber of Commerce in Tulsa, called the proposed law, "narrow-minded, mean-spirited, petulant and not good for our state."

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He went on to say, "We have the most Native Americans of any state in the union, and we are proud of that. We are finally bringing the African-Americans into the mainstream, and the Hispanics are a growing community and far more important to our economy than they were even 10 years ago. Why stiff any of these people and say they are not fully part of our society? What makes us a prosperous society is when we embrace everyone."

As Shade put it, "The idea of making English the official language sounds like a good idea, if you don't look at it real close."

Tribal leaders and minority groups in Oklahoma are looking at it "real close."

In a recent Associated Press report, Ralph Morita, a member of the Asian-American Community Service Center said, "We are trying to fix a non-existent problem. It's a fa?ade."

But state Sen. Carol Martin, R-Comanche, disagrees. "If you have immigrants who are coming into your state, and they don't have an opportunity to learn the language that is the dominant language of the community they are more isolated. What this petition will do is encourage immigrants from all different countries, when they come into our land, to be able to learn and learn as quickly as possible, the dominant language."

Those who oppose the English-only law believe it will have an immediate negative impact on those in Oklahoma who do not speak or read English and that if the law removes translators from court systems and in emergency situations, it unfairly singles out minorities who do not have English as a first language. They also say that the law could mean no translations on tax forms or medicine for those in the state.

A resolution by the opposing tribal nations, who represent over 400,000 members, said the proposed initiative "targets individuals for discriminatory treatment based solely on their language minority status. The resolution went on to refer to the Cherokee, Comanche and Navajo code talkers in World Wars I and II and their service to a country in which English was not their first language. ... Native American languages have been used by the United States government in defending the United States and its citizens."

After pondering the situation, Principal Cherokee Chief Chad Smith said, "I don't know what we'd do with the name of the state. Oklahoma is a Choctaw word. I'll guess if this passes we'll just have to come up with something else to use."