OKLAHOMA CITY - Encouraging indigenous tribes to stand as one voice is a long-time goal of tribal leaders, ranging from the Shawnee leader Tecumseh to the formation of the National Congress of American Indians. One way to create tribal solidarity is through regional tribal organizations such as those that exist throughout the country.
Oklahoma's Indian nations are now working toward having a stronger, unified voice with the revival of the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma. The organization originally formed in 1986, where it eventually went on a several-year hiatus. Due to inaccurate information and negative press issued by opponents of tobacco compacts between Oklahoma tribes and Oklahoma's state government, representatives from the Osage, Cherokee and Creek nations met in Sapulpa in December 2005 to deal with these issues. Out of this meeting came the hosting of tribal summits throughout 2006, before the November elections. By the July 2006 tribal summit, Muscogee (Creek) Nation National Council Speaker George Tiger noticed that many individuals running for statewide office began showing up at these summits.
''We had a majority of the people who were running for statewide offices come to that summit,'' said Tiger. ''We finally were realizing that we were making a difference in terms of people wanting to be a part of a statewide organization. Political people wanted to be seen at our summits. Finally, they were recognizing that tribal governments were making a difference politically. We're making a difference economically. Collectively, as tribes, they were seeing that we were one of the biggest employers in the state of Oklahoma.''
In August 2006, the UINO was reborn, and officers were elected in October 2006 at a meeting in Tulsa, with Tiger elected as chairman. The first meeting of the revived UINO was held Jan. 10 in Oklahoma City. The agenda for this first meeting included a motion to create a Code Talker Day within the Oklahoma Legislature to recognize the contribution of Native language in World War II; a motion to give support to the Bartlesville-based Delaware Tribe in regaining their federal recognition; an in-depth discussion of trust land management, in which Osage Principal Chief Jim Gray was selected as the UINO liaison on trust management issues; and discussions and updates on the status of tribal gaming throughout Indian country.
A featured speaker for the meeting included NCAI First Vice President Jefferson Keel, who is also lieutenant governor for the Chickasaw Nation. One of the key statements Keel made at this meeting is on the need to establish bipartisan efforts on a national level.
''Looking back historically, Indian tribes have not been funded adequately by neither Democrats nor Republicans,'' said Keel. ''If it affects Indian people, we need to be at the table.''
Also at the meeting was Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. Some of the statistics Stevens gave included $22.6 billion in earned revenue from tribal gaming in the past year, $2.7 billion earned in beverage and entertainment, $7.6 billion in reduced welfare and more than 600,000 jobs created nationwide.
Since the meeting, one of the biggest threats to Oklahoma tribes has been in the state House of Representatives, where an English-only bill was passed out of committee. Although the wording of this bill says it is not directed toward Native languages, it is still considered a threat and an insult by many tribal leaders.
In response to this bill, Tiger issued a statement saying: ''It is sad that in 2007, even as the state makes plans to celebrate its centennial year, that people of color are still being targeted for using their language. Indian people in Oklahoma have a long history of being punished for using their tribal language. I would have hoped that in 100 years of statehood we could have learned a few lessons on preserving culture.''
In a conversation with Indian Country Today, Tiger said that he recently spoke with people within the Oklahoma House and felt confident that the bill would not make it to an actual vote.
The next meeting of UINO will be held April 18 in Tulsa. Representatives from the Native American Rights Fund and the U.S. Census Bureau, and NCAI President Joe Garcia, are scheduled to attend.
In the short amount of time UINO has been in re-existence, Tiger said, one of its greatest accomplishments has been recognition from Oklahoma legislators on the importance of tribal governments.
''We've got to maintain the momentum we have right now on a statewide basis in terms of continuing the education of our state legislators,'' said Tiger. ''I think that's something that has been really evident in what we've been able to accomplish. I'm pleasantly surprised that our state legislators are waiting to know more about these tribal governments.''
Tiger also said that one of UINO's ultimate goals is to get more tribes involved as members of the organization, especially Oklahoma's tribes with smaller populations, to fight common problems such as methamphetamine use and the need for better health care.
Another goal of UINO is to continue the momentum of educating legislators and expand that into educating Oklahoma's legislators in the halls of Congress about the needs of the state's Native population.
''I think for a long time that too many of our people that have represented us in Congress, they're willing to help, but they don't quite see what we mean in terms of needing their help with some of the programs that we offer,'' said Tiger.
''We realize that federal funds are very competitive to get. They should also understand that federal funds, anymore, you have to be able to supplement through some type of tribal monies. We're at a point here in Oklahoma where some of us are able to do that, and some of us aren't able to do that. We need their help to increase the amounts of monies that we get in the services that we provide. I think we can do that if we maintain the course that we have right now in getting things done in a unified effort.''