Oklahoma minus the tribes? Something is missing from state's public messaging

Ben Pryor

Federal Court Judge Timothy DeGiusti ordered mediation that is to be confidential and completed by the end of March

Oklahoma recently rolled out its new branding campaign and website in order to drive additional commerce and tourism to the state.

“This is a place that was built from scratch, made by people who gave up everything to come here from all over the world to create something for themselves and their families,” the message said. “We started this place with a land run in 1889 — and honestly, we’re still running, still making, still pioneering.”

“Still pioneering” is a slap at history. There’s no reference to the land rush, the Twin Territories, or especially the Native cultures that make Oklahoma a unique state.

Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell was quick to respond. He issued a statement: “It came to our attention that this specific paragraph was not inclusive of Oklahoma’s rich Native American heritage and was not in line with the other brand elements that did embrace Indigenous cultures.”

Then in the weeks since Governor Kevin Stitt’s State of the State there has been a lot of politics that paint tribes as a problem. The governor wants tribal enterprises, namely casinos, to pay the state a lot more money.

During the address, Stitt asked for legislation “that will allow the remaining cash balance from 2019 and funds from the Revenue Stabilization Fund to be leveraged, if needed, to compensate for any temporary pause in Class III gaming fees.”

(Previous story: Oklahoma governor raises the stakes in fight with tribes)

The governor asked the court to shut down all Class III gaming "until a new gaming compact is entered into by and between the Tribes and Oklahoma.”

Since then, however, Federal Court Judge Timothy DeGiusti ordered mediation in the gaming compact dispute between the tribes and Stitt. Judge DeGiusti ordered the mediation process to be confidential and completed by the end of March.

Mediation has significant implications for the legislature and Oklahoma’s budget, with about $130 million annually in gaming fees that support public education.

During the mediation process, the Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services will still accept tribal dollars, but won’t spend it. Instead, the money will be held in escrow.

Most legislative leaders have expressed support for the tribes’ position, including House Speaker Charles McCall, a Republican from Atoka, as well as House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, a Democrat from Norman, and Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, an Oklahoma City Democrat.

But the Senate leader isn’t so sure. Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, told the Tulsa World “I don’t know if they do or don’t. That is out of the hands of the Legislature.”

Though tribal enterprises use profits to pay for public services while commercial casinos split profits with shareholders, Stitt has still threatened to invite commercial gaming into the state to give tribes competition. But Rep. Collin Walke, a Democrat from Oklahoma City, and a member of the Cherokee Nation and co-chair of the House Native American Caucus, said doesn’t believe the governor has legislative support for that idea.

“I believe that our legislature supports the tribes, and there is no need for outside gaming,” Walke said. “Unfortunately, I feel that Gov. Stitt's position in this regard has harmed the relationships with the tribes. He's taking a blatantly incorrect position in court.”

Stitt’s Secretary of Native American Affairs – Lisa Billy – resigned from his cabinet months ago because of what she deemed as an “unnecessary conflict” that put at risk future tribal relationships and Oklahoma’s economy.

Stitt previously asked Judge DeGiusti to rule the compact expired January 1 and to rule Class III gaming illegal.

Tribal leaders contend Stitt unknowingly set in motion the automatic renewal of the gaming compact in December.

The tribes argue that on at least two occasions, the state triggered an automatic renewal of tribal gaming. First when the state issued racetrack gaming licenses in October. The second when Stitt signed compact extensions with two tribes in December, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Kialegee Tribal Town.

Stitt stresses the renewal provision in the compact was not activated by these actions.

A new report in collaboration with the New York Times and High Country News underscores how “betrayed” many tribal citizens feel by the governor. Stitt, a member of the Cherokee Nation, would reference his Native identity during his gubernatorial campaign. He said this gave him a better understanding of the influence tribes had in the state. Yet the report wrote that Stitt’s family member might not have originally even qualified for tribal citizenship.

The governor issued a statement this week that he finds the "allegations" about his family "highly offensive." He said he is hopeful that the mediation will lead to a deal that is a "win-win" for the state's citizens.

Since the initial lawsuit was filed by the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes on New Year’s Eve, nine additional tribes have joined as co-plaintiffs.

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Ben Pryor, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, researches American politics and political behavior. Email: ben.pryor@icloud.com

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