(Update: On Thursday, May 25, the House of Representatives and the Senate voted to override Gov. Kevin Stitt’s vetoes of SB 429, which allows students to wear tribal regalia during graduation, and SB 299, which recreates the Oklahoma Advisory Council on Indian Education. Both measures became law immediately. The following article remains in its original form.)
Frosty relations between tribes and the state of Oklahoma got even chillier recently as the result of an Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling and three vetoes by Gov. Kevin Stitt on legislation affecting tribes.
The governor veto of SB 429, which would have required school districts to allow Native American students to wear eagle feathers and other forms of tribal regalia at graduation ceremonies, has received the most attention. The bill had been supported by tribes and organizations across the country, with the ACLU releasing a message on Facebook urging Oklahomans to contact lawmakers to support the measure, which they overwhelmingly did. A similar bill had failed to pass during last year’s legislative session.
Stitt also vetoed HB 2608, which would have required sex offenders to register with tribal authorities if they live within a tribe’s jurisdiction. Lastly, Stitt vetoed HB 2819 and SB 299, which both would have recreated the Oklahoma Advisory Council on Indian Education for three more years.
The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, representing the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole nations, issued a statement Friday calling on legislators to override the vetoes. The bills, the council said, protect religious freedom, education and public safety in Oklahoma.
“These bills show what production (sic) partnership between tribal nations and the state of Oklahoma can and should look like: collaborating to protect religious and cultural freedom, respect families, improve education, and keep communities safe from sex offenders,” the statement reads. “The Oklahoma Legislature should swiftly overturn the governor’s vetoes.”
Earlier in the week, one legislative leader said the governor might not resist veto overrides on the dozens of bills he has vetoed if key issues of his agenda, such as private school tuition tax credits and income tax cuts, can get legislative approval.
House Speaker Charles McCall said May 3 that relations between the tribes and Stitt seem to be less hostile than in previous sessions.
“There’s less fighting. Hopefully that will continue to get better,” said McCall (R-Atoka). “There are definitely some things that are coming up that are very important. There are fuel compacts and tobacco compacts that are coming up for renewal, so keeping those relations positive to be able to talk about those and the extension of those is important.
“I’m aware of one of the bills in particular that was a priority for some of the tribal nations that was vetoed. So, once we can get this education plan finalized, [and] the tax cut and the economic development fall into place, that accomplishes the agendas for the House priorities (…) and at that point in time, the governor has made it very clear that if his agenda is accomplished, he doesn’t have a problem with the Senate bills that he has vetoed being restored.”
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement that his tribe is “always ready” to work with state lawmakers on issues that mutually benefit his citizens all Oklahomans.
“Unfortunately, Gov. Stitt has chosen to continue his political attacks on tribes, even when it harms the health, safety and education of Oklahomans,” Hoskin said.
Stitt, meanwhile, said Friday that he has “very good” relationships with tribes.
“I think my relationships with groups all around the state are very good,” he said. “What Oklahomans need to understand is it’s problematic when you can reach into this building and get a bill passed that may not be the best for all 4 million Oklahomans.”
But Hoskin pushed back on that depiction in his statement.
“Preserving religious freedom, collaborating for better health and education, and protecting public safety are not ‘special favors’ to tribes. They are core responsibilities of good governments everywhere,” Hoskin said. “Instead of coming to the table to work together, Gov. Stitt is taking it out on the people of Oklahoma. I am thankful to have many reasonable friends in the Legislature who do not buy into the governor’s counter-productive hostility to the tribal nations that share this land.”
The following roundup details these issues and other recent tribal-related developments.
State Supreme Court decision on certain tribal children
Some tribal leaders are saying the Oklahoma Supreme Court misunderstands tribal sovereignty based on its recent ruling that the state has authority over Native American children who do not live on their own tribal land. They say the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, passed in 1978, gives tribes exclusive rights to hear child welfare cases involving tribal citizens living on tribal reservations.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court decided on April 25 that the exclusivity does not cover children who belong to one tribal nation but live on the reservation of another tribe. The state can make decisions concerning the lives of those children without the consent of the reservation tribe, according to the court opinion written by Justice Richard Darby. None of the eight other justices dissented: Five concurred and three concurred with the result.
Brian Danker, the Choctaw Nation’s senior officer for legal and compliance, said the Supreme Court’s decision demonstrates the state’s misunderstanding of tribal sovereignty, especially as it relates to the Indian Child Welfare Act.
“The sovereign status of a tribe and its territorial jurisdiction over its members and territory is the cornerstone of self-governance,” Danker said in a statement. “This ruling could impact a tribe’s ability to protect tribal citizens’ social, cultural and familial connections as its attempts to chip away at the foundations of tribal sovereignty in the state of Oklahoma.”
The case concerned an infant Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen identified only as S.J.W. The infant was born in March 2020 within the Chickasaw Nation’s reservation in southern Oklahoma.
The state took custody of the baby two days after its birth, claiming in papers filed in Carter County District Court that his parents posed a threat of harm to him and that both parents had a history of domestic violence.
The child’s parents presented arguments, and the court made its ruling in February 2021. The parents appealed and the infant’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss the appeal, claiming neither Carter County District Court nor the Oklahoma Supreme Court had jurisdiction over the case and that the Chickasaw tribal court had exclusive jurisdiction.
But Darby said Carter County District Court and the Creek Nation tribal court have jurisdiction, writing that “when an Indian child lives off the reservation, jurisdiction of the case is concurrent with the state and Indian Child’s tribe, and the case may be transferred to that jurisdiction.”
Darby’s opinion states that:
When a child appears before a district court judge and is subsequently determined to be a member Indian, the district court maintains subject matter jurisdiction. But the sovereign status of a tribe and its territorial jurisdiction over its members and territory necessitates disposition of the matter in that tribe’s tribal courts because self-governance is implicated. (…)
S.J.W. is a Creek Indian living in Carter County, Oklahoma. S.J.W. is not domiciled or residing within the Creek reservation; therefore, the State of Oklahoma shares concurrent jurisdiction with the tribe. All challenges to the district court’s exercise of jurisdiction are denied.
Stitt vetoes tribal regalia, Oklahoma Advisory Council on Indian Education measures
Gov. Kevin Stitt vetoed SB 429, which would have allowed Native American students to wear eagle feathers and other forms of tribal regalia to public school graduations.
The measure easily won legislative approval, passing in the House of Representatives, 90 to 1, and in the Senate, 45 to 0.
Stitt, in his veto message, said school districts or institutions should be able to set the dress code at their institutions’ official graduation ceremonies.
“In other words, if schools want to allow their students to wear tribal regalia at graduation, good on them; but if schools prefer for their students to wear only traditional cap and gown, the Legislature shouldn’t stand in their way,” the governor wrote.
He said the Legislature, according to Article V, Section 46 of the Oklahoma Constitution, cannot pass special laws regulating school districts applicable to one person or class or persons.
“Lastly, as a point of clarification, nothing in current state law prevents a school from allowing students to wear tribal regalia at their graduation ceremonies,” Stitt wrote.
Stitt emphasized that point again Friday when he met with media.
“My veto, I want to be very clear that my veto did not stop any student from wearing tribal regalia, alright? It just leaves that up to the local district. That’s all I’m saying,” he said. “We’re not going to force districts to not be in control of their own cap and gown or whatever they are requiring students to wear.
“I’m not even sure, if they ask, most superintendents probably allow people to wear tribal regalia.”
Stitt also vetoed SB 299, which would have recreated the Oklahoma Advisory Council on Indian Education until July 1, 2026. It also would have changed who appoints members to the council. Instead of the council, the measure called for five to be appointed by the House speaker and four to be named by the Senate president pro tempore.
Stitt, in his veto message, said the Oklahoma Advisory Council on Indian Education “does not at this time serve a necessary government function, and for that reason the scheduled sunset should not be extended. Where prudent, I will continue to do my part to shrink the size of government.”
Sex offender registry bill also vetoed
Gov. Kevin Stitt vetoed HB 2608, which would have required sex offenders register with tribal authorities if they live within a tribe’s jurisdiction.
Federal law already requires sex offenders who live within a tribe’s jurisdiction to register with that tribal authority. Lawmakers supporting the measure wanted to make sure that sex offenders who register with a tribal authority also must register with the state.
In his veto message, Stitt said that while the intent of HB 2608 — that Native American sex offenders who register with a federally recognized tribal nation or tribe in Oklahoma must also register with all other local law enforcement — is well-meaning, the actual effect and “assuredly unintended consequences” are significant.
“The plain, amendatory language would have all sex offenders — Indian and non-Indian alike — additionally register, in person, with tribal law enforcement if the person resides or intends to reside or stay within ‘the jurisdictional boundaries of the federally recognized Indian nation or tribe,”’ Stitt wrote. “The problems are at least two-fold. First, Oklahoma citizens should not be required to register with and/or effectively submit to the jurisdiction of law enforcement that has no jurisdiction over them. Second, given the continued uncertainty and disagreements associated with what is meant by ‘jurisdictional boundaries of the federally recognized Indian nation or tribe,’ the amendatory language would create additional confusion and likely cause more unnecessary disagreements.”
Stitt said Friday his veto of HB 2608 has been “misunderstood.”
“There is absolutely no gap in our registry system,” he said. “All sex offenders must register with the state of Oklahoma. We have those registries online. (…) What that bill said was we were going to start requiring non-natives to start registering in a tribal jurisdiction. That’s what we said we didn’t want to do.”
Cherokee Nation elections set for June 3
Forty candidates are vying for a number of tribal positions in the Cherokee Nation, including principal chief and deputy chief. The election for the top two posts in the Cherokee Nation and for eight tribal council posts is set for June 3.
Those running for principal chief are incumbent Chuck Hoskin Jr., Cara Cowan Watts, David Cornsilk and Wes Nofire. (Nofire finished seventh in the 14-candidate June 2022 Republican primary for an open 2nd Congressional District seat.)
Hoskin was elected in 2019. The principal chief is part of the executive branch charged with executing laws, establishing policy and delegating authority as necessary for day-to-day operations of programs and enterprises administered by the tribal government.
Deputy Chief Bryan Warner is being challenged by David Walkingstick, Bill Pearson and Meredith Frailey. (Walkingstick attempted to challenge Hoskin Jr. in the 2019 principal chief election, but the Cherokee Nation Election Commission voted 4-0 to remove him from the ballot for allegedly violating campus finance rules.)
On April 25, the eight candidates for principal chief and deputy chief participated in a pair of debates hosted by the Cherokee Phoenix, video of which is embedded above. Both positions are elected to four-year terms.
Thirty-two candidates are seeking election to eight tribal council seats, from districts 1, 3, 6, 8, 12, 13 and 14, along with one of the council’s two at-large seats. A complete list of candidates may be found at the Cherokee Nation Election Commission’s website.
Native-owned production company launches new name, partnerships
An Emmy Award-winning, Native-owned film and TV production company based in Tulsa has a new name. Pursuit Films, formerly known as FireThief, also announced it is collaborating with Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the Sesame Street television program, to produce portrait documentaries for its “Healthy Habits for Life” initiative. The series features two Oklahoma Native American families who are practicing healthy lifestyles and maintaining their culture through language, art, music and food.
Pursuit Films since its formation in 2014 has produced hundreds of films for clients such as MSNBC, Nike, Cherokee Nation, First Americans Museum and Fox Nation; and has won 16 regional Emmys for its work on Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People. The team is led by Writer/Director/Producer Jeremy Charles, Executive Producer Matt Leach, a veteran filmmaker who oversees production, alongside Director/Producer Brooke Allen, and Lead Editor/Post-production Supervisor Ty Clark.
New Guide on Press Freedom, FOI in Oklahoma Indian Country
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has released its new Press Freedom & Freedom of Information in Oklahoma Indian Country.
The report provides a primer on press freedom and information access in the nearly-40 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, each of which is recognized by the United States as sovereign. It was compiled by legal intern Alexis Jori Shanes and Oklahoma local legal initiative attorney Kathryn E. Gardner.
Sovereignty refers to the right of each tribe to govern itself and determine its own cultural and political identity. As sovereign nations, tribes have the right to enact, enforce and interpret their own laws. Many tribal nations in Oklahoma have enacted their own laws related to press freedom and information access, but some of those laws limit access by citizenship or other factors.
To provide more information, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has created an interactive map providing a snapshot of press freedom information for different tribes in Oklahoma.