Flanked by more than 50 tribal representatives, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., speaks to media at the River Spirit Casino in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Tres Savage)

TULSA — More than 50 representatives from more than 30 sovereign tribal nations filled a stage at the River Spirit Casino this afternoon to emphasize unity during ongoing gaming compact negotiations and to reject Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s offer of a temporary extension.

“We stand united today against those who break promises. We stand united today in our legal stance, supported by a robust and sound legal opinion on the automatic renewal of the compact,” said Matthew Morgan, head of Chickasaw Nation gaming and the chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association. “We stand united today against the proposed extension by Gov. Stitt as utterly unnecessary given the automatic renewal.”

Tuesday, Stitt floated his gaming extension offer at a State Capitol press conference, arguing he did not want casino employees, vendors or patrons to face uncertainty at the turn of the year.

“The state cannot reach an agreement that addresses the needs of every single tribe in the state in the next [two weeks]. That is obvious to me,” Stitt said at his press conference. “But if we do not take action, all Class III gaming activity will be illegal on Jan. 1, 2020. This creates tremendous uncertainty.”

Wednesday, he released a letter to tribal leaders proposing an extension until Aug. 31, 2020. It was panned at the tribes’ Thursday press event.

“The compact has been a win-win. It has benefited both the tribes and the state,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “The compact works. It is not broke, and it will continue to work many years to come, and it will continue to work Jan. 1, 2020.”

Hoskin said he and other tribal leaders still would like to receive “a realistic and reasonable proposal” from Stitt.

“It’s a matter of respect,” Hoskin said during a TV interview after the press conference. “Our people deserve that respect. We are not getting it.”

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‘Taking smoking out of casinos would kill about half’

Lynn Williams, Kaw Nation
Kaw Nation Chairwoman Lynn Williams discusses concern for the health of tribal citizens during a press conference Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, at the River Spirit Casino in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Tres Savage)

Wyandotte Nation Chief Bill Friend spoke Thursday on behalf of nine tribes whose nations exist within Ottawa County in far northeast Oklahoma.

“The nine tribes in northeast Oklahoma, we’ve been unified on this issue ever since we received the letter in July from Gov. Stitt,” Friend said. “That unity among us has not faltered since. The nine tribes are the largest employer in northeast Oklahoma. Most of Ottawa County is the largest superfund cleanup site in the U.S. Despite that, we’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, when no one else would.”

Kaw Nation Chairwoman Lynn Williams spoke after Friend, emphasizing tribal partnerships and community investments across the state.

“Tribes contribute very much to the rural areas we live in,” Williams said. “We take care of the health not only of our citizens, but also those who are non-native as well.”

Asked whether the assembled tribal leaders have been discussing ways to mitigate the health-related issues of smoking — which is prominent in tribal casinos across Oklahoma — Morgan said consumer demand drives casinos to allow indoor smoking.

“What we offer is always based on our customers. When the customers decide to ask for something different, that’s what we’re sensitive to and we provide,” Morgan said. “It will be an ongoing conversation. That subject has not come up specifically, but it’s not something that is unknown to any casino operations team, and tribal leadership understands that. We will continue to monitor the situation, and if the market demands change, I think you would see them follow heed.”

Gilbert Miles, lieutenant governor of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes, said there is awareness about the dangers of recreational tobacco use, but ultimately people make their own choices.

“Not that I’ve been in many, but there are a lot of bars with people sitting in there drinking and smoking,” Miles said. “I don’t see anybody complaining about that, and these people are walking in on their own knowing smoking is there. If somebody had a problem with the smoking, just don’t come in the front door.”

Miles said any move to end smoking in tribal casinos would hurt their bottom lines.

“Taking smoking out of casinos would kill about half of the casinos because they would go someplace else,” he said.

Still, Miles said the health issue is relevant to tribal governments.

“We just passed a resolution in our tribe where there is no smoking in our facilities or anything we own, except for casinos,” Miles said.

Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes Lt. Gov. Gilbert Miles
Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes Lt. Gov. Gilbert Miles, top center, speaks during a press conference Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, at the River Spirit Casino in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Tres Savage)

Anoatubby: ‘We’re trying to move forward’

Less than two weeks before the end of the year, it remains unclear whether Stitt will blink on his position that the compacts expire Jan. 1. After Thursday’s tribal press conference, he released a statement indicating no such intention.

“The State offered the extension to protect the parties’ legal positions and to provide legal certainty to those working with or visiting the casinos as the Jan. 1, 2020 deadline approaches,” Stitt said. “I am disappointed that the tribes turned our offer down and refused our requests to negotiate new compact terms that better address the parties’ changing needs. I will continue to work to protect the state’s interests, and I hope that those running the casino industry will negotiate with the State in good faith as these compacts demand.”

On multiple occasions, Stitt has used language to describe the situation — such as referring to the “compacts” as “contracts” — that has raised eyebrows among tribal citizens.

“Being new to the job, in July he made some statements that we’re in fact not taken very well,” Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said after Thursday’s event. “But we have to look beyond that. We’re trying to move forward with this compact. We all agree that it auto renews, and we are a little puzzled by why the state is taking a different position.”

Outgoing Muscogee (Creek) Nation Chief James Floyd agreed with Anoatubby.

“We are in a relationship with the governor. Our citizens see the same thing you and I see in the news media. But at the same time as a leader of the tribe, we know we have to get beyond that. He has been the governor for about a year now, so we are trying to get this relationship going. We are very hopeful we can put everything behind us.”

Anoatubby and others reiterated their willingness to negotiate changes to tribal payments to the state called exclusivity fees. Such an increase in those fees would have to be derived from the exchange of an additional item of value, such as sportsbook and mobile gambling.

“We stand united today on the belief that mutual respect leads to productive partnerships and benefits to the state of Oklahoma and our sovereign nations,” Morgan said to start Thursday’s press conference. “We stand united today disheartened that Gov. Stitt’s dispute has damaged the spirit of cooperation and collaboration forged over the past 15 years between tribes and the state of Oklahoma.”

(Editor’s note: The United for Oklahoma campaign purchased advertising on NonDoc through the end of 2019. This story was updated to correct a typo in the name of the River Spirit Casino. NonDoc regrets the error.)