Since before statehood in 1907, the area that would become Oklahoma has been deeply influenced by the American Indian tribes indigenous to the region or relocated to it by the U.S. government. The state is home to nearly 40 federally recognized tribes that are collectively one of the largest employers in Oklahoma.
For some of the state’s largest tribes, 2011 meant transition in both tribal governments and state governments. From the governor’s office to the Legislature, a new crop of elected officials were sworn in following the 2010 elections, as well as intensifying conflict between growing urban hubs like Oklahoma City and more rural areas where tribal governments play a larger role.
At the center of it all
One of the major American Indian issues to arise in 2011 was not initiated by a tribal government or even located within the traditional jurisdictional boundaries of a tribe, but rather was a state project to celebrate Oklahoma’s rich American Indian heritage.
The American Indian Cultural Center & Museum (AICCM), located just south of the Oklahoma River and west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Oklahoma City, is projected to cost around $170 million, but currently the project sits half-completed after a measure to issue bonds to fund the project was not heard by the state Senate last legislative session.
Oklahoma Centennial Commission Chairman Blake Wade has been tasked with
raising private donations for the cultural center.
The state already had spent more than $67 million on the project, along with about $16.3 million in federal money, $2 million from a centennial grant, $600,000 (not counting the value of donated land) from the city of Oklahoma City and $4.7 million in tribal contributions.
Seemingly stuck in limbo, a public-relations effort was launched to boost the cultural center, complete with an advertising campaign featuring former Govs. Frank Keating and Brad Henry.
In hopes of accelerating the center’s opening, the state umbrella agency — the Native American Cultural & Educational Authority — in November named former Oklahoma Centennial Commission Chairman Blake Wade as its executive director.
His organization and the Legislature, Wade said, have agreed that if the center can raise half of the $80 million needed to complete construction, the state will cover the rest.
Within a month, about $20 million has been raised from Indian tribes, Oklahoma City and corporations in Oklahoma, Wade added.
“We couldn’t be happier,” he said.
“We’re almost halfway there, and we’ve got the momentum.”
The goal, Wade said, is to quickly raise the money and have the facility completed by the end of 2014.
Once finished, he said, the AICCM will be a boon for Oklahoma tribes, as well as the state, with thousands of people coming to visit the “destination” facility.
“For us not to finish it would be a tragedy for all of Oklahoma,” Wade said. “We’re going to do it.”
A topsy-turvy election
One of the biggest shifts in tribal politics in Oklahoma occurred when longtime Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith was defeated by tribal Councilman Bill John Baker in an election that drew vote-tampering allegations and federal intervention.
Smith (pictured), the Cherokee Nation’s longest-serving principal chief since the tribe returned to electing chiefs (rather than appointing) in 1971, had held the top spot for 12 years. Baker, a tribal councilman representing Tahlequah, long had been one of the council members outside of the pro- Smith voting bloc.
The June 25 election attracted a large turnout. Unofficial results the next day showed Baker ahead by only seven votes, said Lenzy Krehbiel- Burton, a Cherokee Nation spokeswoman who formerly covered the election for the Tulsa World.
Then things got interesting.
Certified results the following Monday had Smith in the lead by 11 votes. Baker requested a recount, which subsequently put Baker up by 266 votes. Smith filed a petition with the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, which, after an extended hearing, scrapped the results and ordered a new election.
Before that Sept. 24 election, however, the court ruled on a case that had languished in the tribal court system. In so doing, the judges expelled 2,800 descendants of freed-men (emancipated slaves who had been owned by the tribe) who were fighting for their continued recognition after a 2007 referendum required “by-blood” membership.
“It caught everybody completely off guard,” Krehbiel-Burton said. “It was, ‘Wait, what? You’re joking.’” About 1,200 of those to-be expelled descendants were registered voters. Many of them had been at odds with Smith, who championed the referendum to boot them from the tribe.
“It wasn’t a lovefest (between Smith and the freedmen descendants), I’ll put it that way,” Krehbiel-Burton said.
However, the Bureau of Indian Affairs warned acting-Principal Chief Joe Crittenden that the agency would not recognize the election results if freedmen descendants were excluded. An eventual agreement allowed the descendants back into the tribe and extended the days for voting.
By the time the proverbial dust cleared, Baker won by 1,500 votes and was sworn in as the nation’s new principal chief.
If Republicans retain a majority in the state House of Representatives after the next election, Rep. T.W. Shannon of Lawton, a Chickasaw Nation member, will succeed term-limited Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee. The House GOP caucus elected Shannon speaker-designate in October.
“I am excited and ready to stand behind Speaker Steele to help grow our majority in the coming election and assist in advancing a conservative agenda,” the 33-year-old Shannon (pictured) said in a news release.
Although Shannon is not the first with American Indian heritage to hold the speaker position, he would be the first African-American to do so in Oklahoma.
Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby lauded Shannon as an exceptional leader with a strong work ethic.
“His decisions are guided by strong moral values and the needs of the people he serves,” he said. “Every Oklahoman will benefit because of his commitment to service.”
In August, the Choctaw Nation and Chickasaw Nation filed a fed eral suit against Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB), Gov. Mary Fallin and several other entities over the purchase of water from southeast Oklahoma for use in the state’s central region.
The controversy began in 2010, when the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust, trying to secure another source of water for the growing urban area, purchased water-storage rights in Sardis Lake.
But southeastern Oklahoma residents and tribal governments saw the move as taking from an already-impoverished area to fund unsustainable growth in Central Oklahoma.
In the federal suit, the Chickasaws and Choctaws state that treaties predating statehood — and which are to be honored by Oklahoma under its Enabling Act — give tribes full water rights in the area.
The OWRB responded by giving its attorneys the go-ahead to begin the process of adjudicating the water rights.
Anoatubby (pictured) and Choctaw Chief Greg Pyle warned that such litigation would have dire consequences.
the carefully structured suit that the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations
filed, Oklahoma’s lawsuit will proceed against thousands of individual
Oklahomans,” the tribes stated in a joint statement, “seeking to force
each and every one of them to retain a lawyer and proceed to court to
prove up whatever right to water they think they have or their neighbors
would such action … not resolve the issues that the Chickasaw and
Choctaw Nations have highlighted in their suit, but the state’s lawsuit
would condemn Oklahomans to a generational fight that pits neighbor
against neighbor and community against community on a scale that this
state has never seen before.”
Off to the races
2010, the Chickasaw Nation took over Remington Park, purchasing the
Oklahoma City horse-racing track out of bankruptcy from Magna
Entertainment. The new owners wasted little time beginning improvements
on the facility.
Last March, the tribe unveiled its $15 million track renovations, the crown jewel of which was a four-story video screen.
right, The Chickasaw Nation has pumped more than $15 million into renovating Remington Park.
are constantly looking for new ways to diversify our economic
development efforts. Remington Park provides an excellent opportunity to
expand our business operations,” Anoatubby said.
believe we are well on our way to developing Remington Park to its full
potential. Because [it] is located in close proximity to other
attractions, this area could become an even higher level regional or
national tourist destination.”
He has reason to be optimistic.
indicate that park revenues have increased since the tribe installed
gaming machines at the facility. Daily handles also have risen.
with all our businesses, what benefits the Chickasaw Nation also
benefits the state of Oklahoma,” Anoatubby said, “because we are
committed to reinvesting in the people of this state.”
Photos by Mark Hancock and Shannon Cornman