A heritage that persists
The month of November was first proclaimed “National American Indian Heritage Month” by the late President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Nearly 30 years later, November remains a special time to acknowledge the contributions and importance of tribes and their members in the United States.
While November is the designated month to celebrate and reflect on the rich history of Native Americans, I consider the importance of my own tribal heritage every day. Growing up in Oklahoma, I had the great privilege of being immersed in tribal culture. And as a member of the Chickasaw Nation, I was also fortunate to be surrounded by family members who shared my tribal ancestry and who worked hard to preserve our special heritage. My great, great grandfather served as the clerk for the Chickasaw Supreme Court. My great grandfather served as the treasurer of the Chickasaw Nation and my great aunt, Te Ata Thompson Fisher, was a famous actress, performer and storyteller whose talents took her all over the world, spreading Native American stories. Finally, the greatest influence in my life, my late mother Helen Cole, was the first Native American woman ever elected to the Oklahoma State Senate.
Because of my background, I have always considered it a privilege and honor to represent the interests and constitutionally-given rights of tribes in the U.S. House of Representatives. Along with my Oklahoma colleague Markwayne Mullin and our Democratic colleagues Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, I am proud to be one of four Native Americans currently serving as part of a bipartisan tribal delegation in Congress.
Across the United States, there are more than 530 federally-recognized tribes – including 39 sovereign tribes in Oklahoma and 11 located right in the Fourth District. While the historic relationship between the federal government and tribal nations has at times been estranged, Native American issues should always encourage bipartisan cooperation and attention. As the Republican co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Native American Caucus, I am proud to promote policies that affirm and protect the rights of tribes to self-governance and preserve the promises made by the federal government in various trust agreements.
It has been a productive year for the introduction of legislation that affirms tribal sovereignty and improves the lives of Native Americans. That has included bills that would allow construction of veteran nursing homes on tribal lands, address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, safeguard tribal objects of patrimony, repeal antiquated and hostile laws directed towards Native Americans and help break the cycle of poverty in Indian Country.
This year also marks 25 years since the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was first signed into law. Providing hope and support for victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, Violence Against Women Act is of great importance to tribes. Unfortunately, Violence Against Women Act’s authorization expired in February of this year, causing uncertainty for the entities stewarding resources. Though the Senate still has not brought up legislation to reauthorize Violence Against Women Act, I was encouraged that the House did so in April. Certainly, there were provisions in the House bill with which I profoundly disagreed. But as a tribal member and staunch supporter of tribal sovereignty, I also recognized the value of several provisions consistent with my voting record on tribal issues and views regarding the protection of Native women and children.
In writing the House version of Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, I commend the House Judiciary Committee for putting in specific protections and provisions that expand jurisdiction for tribes to enforce justice on their own tribal lands. As affirmed through trust and treaty obligations and tribal sovereignty protected by the U.S. Constitution, I believe tribal governments should have the same authority as states and local governments to protect women and children in vulnerable situations. Just as the House has advanced a Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill, the Senate needs to act immediately so both chambers can go to conference and negotiate a final bill that can be signed into law and that includes these critical provisions for tribes.
Beyond the introduction of valuable legislation, I was proud that a statue of an influential tribal leader was recently unveiled in the U.S. Capitol and will remain displayed for visitors to see as part of the Statuary Hall collection – which allows for two statues of important figures from each state. Representing one of Nebraska’s statues, the newest statue depicts the legendary and larger-than-life Chief of the Ponca Tribe, Standing Bear. Born in Nebraska and later removed with his tribe to Indian Territory in what is present-day Oklahoma, Chief Standing Bear was a key figure in fighting for civil rights of Native Americans and ultimately causing the first federal court ruling in history that “an Indian is a person,” assuring the same rights and freedoms written in the Constitution. I am proud that Chief Standing Bear’s legacy will live on and be appropriately honored with this special statue.
As Americans, it is indeed important to remember the role tribes and their leaders have played in our collective history. Indeed, there is much to celebrate in Oklahoma and nationwide during Native American Heritage Month this year and every year.
U.S. Representative Tom Cole (R-OK-04) is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and is the Ranking Member of House Rules Committee. Cole is currently serving in his eighth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was identified as “one of the sharpest minds in the House,” by Time Magazine and “the hardest working Member of Congress,” by Newsmax. In 2017, Cole was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.