Monday, June 20, 2022

Small: Reality check for Cherokee leaders may be positive sign

Reality check for Cherokee leaders may be positive sign
By Jonathan Small

The U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision, which effectively declared much of eastern Oklahoma remains tribal reservation land, prompted some tribal officials to embrace separatism.

In 2021, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation official told NonDoc the difference between the Muscogee chief and the governor of Oklahoma is that one is the “head of a nation” while the other is “just the head of the state.”

That’s grandiose, at best. David Hill was elected Muscogee principal chief with 3,399 votes. Kevin Stitt was elected Oklahoma governor with 644,579 votes.

On a similar note, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. recently banned display of the Oklahoma flag on Cherokee property. But Hoskin’s action drew swift rebuke from other Cherokees. [see article here]

When announcing he was reversing course, Hoskin said he had “heard from many Cherokee citizens” and “the vast majority were opposed” to his flag order. Many were concerned it “further divided the state and the tribe.”

Put simply, there was a huge gap between Cherokee leadership and Cherokee citizens, most of whom do not view their home state with hostility.

It’s not shocking that gap exists. Few Cherokees are directly involved in tribal government. The tribe reports over 400,000 individuals are Cherokee citizens, but less than 14,000 voted in the last election for tribal chief. (Similar trends are also notable for the Muscogee Nation, which claims 86,100 citizens.)

Most Cherokees don’t embrace a worldview pitting them against their non-Indian neighbors and family members.

That contrasts with many comments from some tribal leaders. When the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs called for McGirt to be reversed, which would simply ensure all Oklahomans are treated the same under the law as had been the case for the prior century, Muscogee leadership responded with “see you on the battlefield.”

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation now argues all Muscogee citizens living on the tribe’s reservation—including most of Tulsa—are exempt from state taxes. Hoskin has also indicated support for that position. If that view prevails, it could reduce state funding for things like roads and schools by more than $200 million, if not more.

As state Sen. John Michael Montgomery has noted, if tribal citizens don’t pay Oklahoma taxes “there’s a pretty compelling argument to be said: ‘Why are we still funding things in areas if they’re not going to be paying taxes on services for those areas?’”

The challenges created by McGirt extend well beyond flag displays. Rather than equal treatment, what is occurring under McGirt is different treatment based on heritage and physical location—and that disparate treatment is harming people, including tribal citizens.

Most Cherokees understand we are all Oklahomans, even if some of their leaders do not. If those Cherokee citizens’ view prevails, the challenge of working out state-tribal differences will become much easier.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs


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