Opinion: Oklahomans deserve and should expect a fully functioning state-tribal relationship

If we can’t work together, we risk a judge with no ties here deciding our future for us

November 10, 2023 5:28 am

Oklahoma's state seal features a Native American and pioneer shaking hands. (Photo by Janelle Stecklein/Oklahoma Voice)

The feud involving Gov. Kevin Stitt and tribal leaders has gone on long enough.

People deserve a fully functioning relationship between our 39 federally recognized tribes and the state. It’s time for someone — anyone — to step up and lead Oklahoma out of the morass. 

For nearly four years now, residents have watched in agonizingly slow motion as dispute after dispute erupted between the Governor’s Office and many of the state’s tribal nations. 

We watched as everyone blamed each other for the situation.

Officials dug in their heels and refused to budge even as uncertainty grew over the ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision, which found that much of eastern Oklahoma is land that belongs to the tribes. That ruling has spurred legal challenges ranging from the ability to enforce speeding tickets to whether the state has the authority to collect income taxes.

It sometimes feels like we have a front row seat to a bad soap opera. The ongoing compact dispute is damaging the very fabric and core of Oklahoma’s being, jeopardizing the welfare of all its residents and leading to costly litigation.

Until recently, most lawmakers just watched the drama unfold as seemingly benign compact agreements collapsed. 

Earlier this year though, legislators took an active role in compacting, temporarily extending a few motor vehicle and tobacco agreements that were set to expire. Stitt has sued, arguing that only he can negotiate compacts. 

This week, House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, held a two-day interim study about the state’s compacting situation. Leaders of four of the state’s most influential tribes attended. Stitt did not, though his tribal liaison, Wes Nofire, was there.

As Carmen Forman reported, Stitt’s absence loomed large. The four tribal leaders called for collaboration, cooperation and mutual respect.

McCall said there are at least 555 compacts and interlocal agreements between tribes and various government entities in Oklahoma.

Forman reported that the state and tribes have compacted for nearly three decades on a wide variety of issues, and that those intergovernmental agreements help avoid costly litigation and unnecessary conflict between sovereign governing bodies.

The public is not at the negotiating table, so it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on behind closed doors besides the brief glimpses of failed pitches that are occasionally leaked to the media during moments of frustration. 

It’s clear that Stitt is challenging the limits of tribal sovereignty and insists tribes should pay a greater share of revenue. 

Tribal leaders obviously want to ensure their interests are protected and their sovereignty is respected. It’s also obvious that a historic decision by leaders of the five most powerful tribes to endorse Stitt’s Democratic gubernatorial challenger last year did little to help mend fences.

Existing animosity is of little benefit. 

The wellbeing of many small cities and towns is closely tied to the economic prosperity of their tribal neighbors. Tribes frequently donate to local schools, fire departments and other entities for the betterment of all. State taxpayer funds, meanwhile, support services for all Oklahomans and tribal members. 

For years, the slogan on our license plate was “Native America,” a nod to the state’s complex history that saw the federal government force Indigenous people from their ancestral lands and into what would later become Oklahoma.

Governors from both political parties and tribal leaders have managed to work together for decades, often for the betterment of everyone in these lands.

Hopefully all of our leaders can quickly find a path forward that allows them to begin to work together to bridge the unfortunate divide.

People want their leaders to begin tackling some of the complex state-tribal issues that we suddenly face.

Because if we don’t, we risk a judge with no ties here deciding the future for us.

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Janelle Stecklein
Janelle Stecklein

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.