Oklahoma Tribes Still Waiting for Governor Fallin’s Native Liaison
At the end of the 2011 Oklahoma legislative session, Republican Governor Mary Fallin signed HB 2172 into law, which effectively ended the 43-year-old Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission. In place of the commission, the governor was initially required to appoint a liaison that would serve as an intermediary between the executive branch and all of Oklahoma’s 39 tribes. The deadline for that appointment was December 1, 2011. At press time, the position had yet been filled.
The language of the bill, as reported by Indian Country Today Media Network on June 13, 2011, requires the liaison to be of at least a one-quarter Indian blood. Language in the law states that the liaison position has the potential to become a cabinet-level “Secretary of Native American Affairs” position, although there is no written guarantee to do so. The primary duties of this liaison position include negotiating agreements and monitoring of tribal-state compacts, which would include tobacco and gaming.
“The Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission played a very important role for many years to facilitate communications between American Indian governments and the state government,” said Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby. “With more than three dozen federally-recognized tribes in the state, a liaison could play a very useful role in enabling the state and tribes to work together to better serve all Oklahomans.”
In a statement released by Fallin’s office, one of the reasons that the liaison position has not been filled is because of the one-quarter-blood quantum requirement. The statement says that the requirement “may violate state and federal constitutional prohibitions against employment discrimination, as well as severely restrict the pool of qualified applicants.”
The statement goes further to explain that the one-quarter-blood quantum requirement “is also stronger than what some Native American tribes require for membership, meaning that some tribal members could be excluded from holding this position.” Examples of Oklahoma tribes that hold less than one-quarter-blood requirement for membership include the Comanche Nation, which currently requires a one-eighth-blood requirement, or the Cherokee Nation, which requires a member to be a descendant of a Dawes Roll ancestor regardless of blood quantum. At press time, Cherokee Nation’s membership also includes those of Delaware, Shawnee and Cherokee Freedmen descent.
Toward the end of the release issued from Fallin’s office, it says that Fallin “and her staff are working with legislative leaders to correct and fix this statute in the near future and to ultimately establish a liaison that can provide a valuable service to the tribes, the governor, and the state of Oklahoma.”
One attempt to amend this HB 2172 is current bill HB 3004, written by Oklahoma House of Representatives member Chuck Hoskin, D-Okla. Hoskin, a Cherokee Nation member and former council member, currently serves as Chief of Staff for Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker when not in legislative session. Hoskin wrote in this current bill that, if signed into law, the liaison would be a cabinet-level position and simply be a member of a federally recognized tribe, thereby nullifying the original one-quarter-blood quantum requirement. At press time, HB 3004 had passed out of committee by an 11-6 vote and was waiting to be heard on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
“My bill will strengthen government-to-government relations between the tribes and the state of Oklahoma,” said Hoskin. “The Native American tribes make substantial economic and cultural contributions to the state of Oklahoma, and it is vital that they have a more effective outlet for their concerns and a greater hand in making policy that concerns them.”
An earlier bill on February 16 passed out of committee 15-0 that would eliminate the blood quantum requirement but not elevate the liaison position to the cabinet level. This bill is HB 2563, co-authored by state Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Okla., the assistant majority whip, and Lisa J. Billy, R-Okla., the assistant majority floor leader. Wesselhoft is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and also serves as a member of their legislature. Billy is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and formerly served as a member of their legislature.
“Blood degree is an artificial definition of an Indian fostered by the federal government to ultimately deny their treaty obligations in the future by setting some arbitrary blood percentage,” Wesselhoft said in a statement dated January 24. “If we allow blood degree to be legal and binding, eventually Indian progeny, through intermarriage, would run out of such a degree of blood to qualify for certain jobs. Additionally, blood degree ultimately denies citizenship in the tribe and citizenship would no longer be afforded to future generations of Native Americans.”
Wesselhoft stated that he planned to author a future bill that would elevate the liaison position to the cabinet level.
Critics of Fallin concede slightly about there being problems with this bill, yet still wish to hold her accountable. “Even though there may be questions concerning the bill, she is still neglecting every Native American in Oklahoma by not appointing a liaison,” said Wallace Collins, the chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.
In a statement issued by the ODP, Collins references Fallin’s State of the State address, in which she asks for $5 million to be appropriated to the Attorney General’s office to assist in litigation with the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations over water rights. “[Fallin] is showing a pattern of behavior of disregarding our Native American tribal members and treating them as obstacles, rather than citizens of our state.”