Lisa Billy, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary of Native American affairs, resigned this afternoon, sending Stitt a letter that called his disagreement with tribal leaders over gambling compacts “an unnecessary conflict that poses a real risk of lasting damage to the state-tribal relationship and our economy.”
Billy, a former state representative and member of the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes, has appeared in Chickasaw Nation television commercials for years and made history as the state’s first secretary of Native American affairs, a position created by Stitt in January 2019.
But Stitt’s relationship with tribal leaders has soured owing to a disagreement in the interpretation of Oklahoma’s Model Tribal Gaming Compact, which expires Dec. 31. Tribes read Part 15 of the compact to indicate it automatically renews, while Stitt argues he has given appropriate notice to avoid such auto-renewal.
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“It has been an honor to serve as Oklahoma’s first secretary of Native American affairs. I will always appreciate your giving me the opportunity. It is accordingly with a heavy heart that I must resign,” Billy wrote to Stitt in a letter dated Monday. “I had hoped service on your cabinet would allow me to be part of a new administration’s efforts to deepen and strengthen state relations with sovereign tribal nations. Leaning in to this opportunity, I have, at my own expense, visited elected tribal leaders across the state, hosted a tribal youth summit, created opportunities for our cabinet to tour tribal industry, communicated your message to various Inter-Tribal councils, and shared cultural protocol appropriate to supporting effective intergovernmental collaboration. All my efforts have focused on improving the health of the state-tribal relationship. I am proud of this work and, again, am grateful for having had the opportunity.”
In her third paragraph, Billy references the compact dispute.
“However, it has become increasingly clear you are committed to an unnecessary conflict that poses a real risk of lasting damage to the state-tribal relationship and to our economy,” Billy wrote. “You have dismissed advice and facts that show the peril of your chosen approach and have remained intent on breaking faith with the tribes, both by refusing to engage with the compact’s language and, more recently, by suggesting you would displace our tribal partners with private, out-of-state commercial gaming operators. Your actions have shown that my continuing in service on your cabinet is unnecessary to you and impossible for me. I must accordingly resign, effective immediately.”
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Donelle Harder, a senior advisor to the governor, provided a statement from Stitt in response.
“The state has been and remains committed to working collaboratively with the tribes,” Stitt said. “We regret that we won’t have the wisdom of Lisa Billy’s counsel in that endeavor. Lisa was the first person to serve on an Oklahoma governor’s cabinet in the position of secretary of Native American affairs. I am immensely grateful for her service to our great state and her collaboration with our team.”
Last week, Stitt offered tribal leaders a temporary extension of the compact, which lays out the guidelines for tribal casinos in the state. Two days later, more than 50 tribal leaders held a press conference rejecting Stitt’s offer.
A Purcell resident, Billy represented HD 42 as a Republican from 2004 until term limits ended her legislative career in 2016.
After Billy’s resignation letter was distributed by a public relations firm Monday, Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby posted about Billy’s decision on Facebook:
“Lisa Billy is a dedicated public servant whose work in the Oklahoma legislature and the Chickasaw Nation legislature has drawn accolades from all who are familiar with her career,” Anoatubby wrote. “She worked diligently to strengthen the relationship between the state and the tribes long before she began her tenure as secretary of Native American affairs. While we are saddened by the situation that led Lisa Billy to resign, we commend her for demonstrating the courage of her convictions by taking this principled action.”
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(Update: This post was updated at 5:18 p.m. Monday, Dec. 23, to include the comment of Gov. Anoatubby.)