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Comanche Nation names Mike Burgess new leader

S.E. Ruckman, Today correspondent
7/1/09

LAWTON, Okla. – Comanche Nation tribal members packed into a tribal board room June 18 to witness their leadership change hands as newly elected chairman, Mike Burgess took the oath of office.

Burgess won a run-off election June 13 with 57 percent of the vote, defeating Johnny Wauqua who tallied 41 percent. The vice chairman seat was claimed by Richard Henson, who defeated Eleanor McDaniel with 55 percent of the vote.

According to tribal election board officials, no protest was filed on behalf of any candidate and results were certified June 16.

During the inauguration ceremony, outgoing chairman, Wallace Coffey, told onlookers that the tribe was entering a new era and called the event “historic.” Coffey administered the oath of office to Burgess.

“This is a time in our nation where we’re going to move forward,” Coffey said.

Burgess said his time as chairman would be pledged to service for tribe and community.

“The things we have struggled through have brought us here to this day. Our nation has been here longer than the government that we have to work with.”

The new Comanche leader was serenaded by preschoolers who sang in Comanche from Numunuu Turetu, the tribe’s child care center and presented with a new pair of moccasins to signify beginning his journey as tribal chairman.

In an earlier interview, Burgess said his priorities for the next four years would be health care, education and enterprise. One of the tasks he will first tackle is to revamp the tribe’s internal structure.

Burgess wants to split the current 30 program directors into six tribal program subdivisions. He said similar moves he designed were successful at the Caddo, Delaware and Kaw Nations.

“The goal here is to increase service to our people with more efficiency.”

Externally, Burgess said the tribe will focus on health care development, land acquisition and vigilance over its natural resources. The tribe would like to maintain the status quo of its state compacts and at the same time defer from dramatic changes in the local health care delivery system.

More specifically, he said the Comanche Nation will not assume IHS services in Lawton. The nearby health facility is the only non-tribally contracted Indian hospital left in Oklahoma. They forgo moves similar to the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw who have assumed services under a 638 federal contract because operational problems can plague any kind of health facility.

“We need that (Lawton) hospital upgraded from the $14 million it receives now to around $25 million,” he said. “We also need a cancer treatment center there, but we (Comanche) wouldn’t take on the hospital.”

On the economic plane, the new Comanche chairman alluded to hotel development for their four existing casinos and building travel plazas within their jurisdiction. The travel plaza model is designed to sell food, gas and a truck wash, he said.

“We’re looking at anywhere that falls into our service area, like near the Red River or along the route to Oklahoma City.”

Meanwhile, buying back lands within their seven-county jurisdiction will be a priority for the Comanche. The current economic crisis has offered a unique environment where land that was once Indian-owned has come up for sale. The opportunity to regain Comanche lands has not gone unnoticed by the tribe’s business committee.

“There’s avenues we can seek. ... areas within the Wichita Mountain range (not federal land) that we would be interested in buying.”

As Burgess assumes office, the 14,000-member tribe faces a $4 million budget reduction for 2010. The tribe has an estimated $40 million to operate with revenues from its four southwest Oklahoma casinos, down from $44 million.

But challenges are part of the scenery, Burgess said.

“I’m doing what my elders told me to do. ... go off, get an education, get experience and then come back and help my people.”

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