Tribes, Oklahoma law enforcement clash over tribal license plate citation

Oklahoma tribes allege state abruptly changed license plate policies for Indigenous citizens

By: and - November 9, 2023 6:01 pm

A ticket the Oklahoma Highway Patrol issued to a member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe sparked confusion and conflict between the state and Native American tribes on Thursday. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Multiple Native American tribes said they were caught off guard Thursday by an alleged change in how the state enforces tribal license plate protocols.

Otoe-Missouria Tribe officials accused the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety of unexpectedly altering its position on tribal vehicle registration after one of its members received a $249 ticket. 

The tribal member, who could not be reached for comment, posted on social media a copy of the ticket that notes she had an Otoe-Missouria license plate but lives outside the tribe’s north-central Oklahoma boundaries.

The Department of Public Safety said the Highway Patrol trooper followed a 30-year legal precedent when issuing the ticket. 

The latest clash between state and tribal officials comes as Gov. Kevin Stitt continues to pressure Indigenous leaders to negotiate new compacts on various issues. 

It’s also not the first disconnect over tribal tags. The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority said earlier this year it could lose millions of dollars because its new cashless tolling system, PlatePay, can’t read some tribal license plates.

Otoe-Missouria Chairman John Shotton said his tribe is reviewing all legal options in response to the Department of Public Safety’s actions. 

“After over 20 years of cooperation between the state and tribes regarding vehicle tag registration, it appears the state has altered its position of understanding concerning tribal tags,” he said in a statement. “This change was made without notice or consultation with all tribes that operate vehicle tag registration.”

The situation could have been avoided had the state consulted with tribal officials before changing its policies, he said.

This policy isn’t new, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Sarah Stewart said.  

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that Indigenous Oklahomans can register a vehicle through their tribe as long as they reside within their tribe’s official boundaries. If a tribe has a valid compact with the state, any of their citizens, regardless of where they live, can possess a tribal tag.

The news also came as a surprise to other tribes.

This way of enforcing the law “appears to be a change in cooperation by the state of Oklahoma over all tribal license plates,” Osage Nation Attorney General Clinton Patterson said in a statement.

“Please know this change was made without any consultation with the Osage Nation and without notice,” he said.

Citizen Potawatomi Nation Chairman John Barrett Jr. said his tribe was not consulted or notified about changes to tribal tag regulations.

“We are still unsure what the details of the policy are,” Barrett said in a statement.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has had a contentious relationship with Oklahoma’s Native American tribes over tribal compact negotiations. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)

Stitt, who has been at odds with many of the tribes through much of his time in elected office, said this enforcement is necessary.

“This is addressing a significant public safety issue that puts law enforcement and others at risk,” Stitt said in a statement. “If tribal governments won’t share vehicle registration information with DPS, we can’t keep our officers and our streets safe. Members of tribes with valid compacts that provide needed car registration information will not be ticketed.”

Against Stitt’s wishes, state lawmakers passed legislation this year to extend a few tribal motor vehicle registration compacts until Dec. 31, 2024. Some tribal leaders have expressed frustration about Stitt’s compacting attempts, saying they have disagreed with the governor’s tone, tactics and, at times, the terms he’s presented.

The Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations have compacts with the state.

Agreeing to a compact is the “ideal avenue” to address these concerns, said Phil Bacharach, spokesperson for Attorney General Gentner Drummond. 

State records show no car tag compacts with the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, Osage Nation nor the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

But the Citizen Potawatomi Nation said it shares its vehicle registration information with the Oklahoma law enforcement database.

The tribe looks forward to discussing the matter with state, county and local government officials who partner with the tribe and “share our interest in the difficult and necessary work of maintaining public safety,” said Barrett, the nation’s chairman.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify information about the tribes that have motor vehicle compacts with the state. 



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Carmen Forman
Carmen Forman

Carmen covers state government, politics and health care from Oklahoma City. A Norman native, she previously worked in Arizona and Virginia before she began reporting on the Oklahoma Capitol.

Nuria Martinez-Keel
Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.