ANALYSIS On the Cherokee fishing/hunting compact, ‘Everything is Everything’ – so stay tuned for details

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin will travel to Tahlequah today (Friday, May 29) to meet Principal Chief Bill John Baker and Deputy Chief S. Joe Crittenden.

In a 1 p.m. ceremony at the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex, Fallin and Baker may sign a compact to granting – or, as some prefer to put it, recognizing – expansive hunting and fishing rights for citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

The accord, approved by the Cherokee Tribal Council, will impact the Oklahoma Wildlife Commission, absolutely in terms of jurisdiction and perhaps in terms of income.

The compact also amounts to a choice by the state government (at least Gov. Fallin), which is explicitly choosing the Cherokee Nation’s side in long-standing jurisdictional and other disputes with the United Keetoowah Band (UKB) of Cherokee Indians. reports, “Cherokee Nation citizens are guaranteed hunting and fishing rights by treaty and tribal law on Cherokee Nation land, but the new compact will expand hunting and fishing rights across all of Oklahoma at no cost to tribal citizens. Currently, the cost for a joint hunting and fishing license is $42.”

For more than a decade the Nation has said these powers flow from the series of treaties forged in the 1830’s between the U.S. government and the Cherokees during and after the latter’s forced removal from the eastern United States.

However, broad sovereign tribal powers were at least somewhat eroded by treaties and laws that followed the U.S. Civil War. In any case, the UKB asserts some of those rights, too.

Chief Baker said the Cherokee Nation was willing to litigate all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to support its interpretations.

Ed Godfrey of The Oklahoman, who presently covers hunting, fishing and wildlife issues for the state’s largest newspaper, last evening distilled the compact’s apparent meaning as follows: 

“Cherokee citizens will be able to hunt and fish without a state license anywhere in the state. The Cherokee Nation will issue its citizens a state-recognized Cherokee Nation Hunting and Fishing Permit.”

The Oklahoma Wildlife Commission had planned to examine these issues on Monday, June 1. 

However, as news of the agreement percolated, the eight-member panel held an emergency meeting Thursday (May 28). According to a posted meeting agenda, that session could have resulted in a statement of opposition to the accord. And, many analysts believe state wildlife resources could plummet under the compact.

After the meeting, however, Department of Wildlife Conservation director Richard Hatcher told Godfrey, “I don’t think it’s going to cost us anything. Part of the agreement was it wasn’t going to cost us anything. In fact, it will probably be revenue producing. I believe the Wildlife Department will benefit financially.”

Hatcher asserted to Godfrey, “The commission is in favor of the compact… The concerns have more to do with the enforcement of the laws, and what does this mean in terms of jurisdiction and how much is it going to cost us in administrative costs in helping them issue the licenses.”

A critical look at the new compact came this week from journalist David Arnett, at Tulsa Today.

He argued the agreement cedes too much power to Oklahoma, and could effect tribal “legal positions on water rights actions and other cases of possible dispute with both the State and Federal government.” On at least one thing, Arnett agrees with Hatcher, as he believes the state will net revenues from the compact, perhaps $300,000 to $500,000 annually.

Timing of the accord, Arnett wrote, feeds suspicions the compact may support “political grandstanding” by Chief Baker, who is in the midst of a reelection campaign. Arnett asserts the tribe “is buying rights they are already hold to gain nothing in return.”

Outside the state and Cherokee leadership, few would quarrel with Arnett’s contention that “This compact has not received public scrutiny or careful consideration.”

Thursday, Wildlife Commissioners issued a statement asserting they did not oppose a compact. 

However, they raised concerns over “jurisdiction, enforcement of state laws, law enforcement, administrative costs associated with maintaining a licensing system for compact licenses.”

Cherokee Nation officials assert the new compact has no connection to other significant issues (gaming, natural resources, water).

That could be true. However, in Indian Country, as an old expression goes, “Everything is Everything.”

Unquestionably, the compact extends the rationale behind car tag compacts with certain tribes, including the Cherokees, allowing tribal members to purchase tags at 80 percent of the regular rate. 

The state gained uniform reporting in the car tag compacts, while tribal members living in Indian Country were no longer required to purchase state license plates.

Even if Wildlife Director Hatcher is right about the financial impact of the compact, several things are not yet certain. 

For starters, Hatcher’s staff will have to learn (rather than asking the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs) which parts of Cherokee land or jurisdiction clearly fall into “restricted fee” status.

While Cherokee country covers 14 counties in northeast Oklahoma, the new compact has broader impact. Federal legislation passed in 2002 in the midst of the notable alliance of former U.S. Sen. Don Nickles, R-Ponca City, and Cherokee Chief Ross Swimmer codified the 14-county reach for the Nation.

Earlier, litigation in a 1980 case between the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes and the Oklahoma Tax commission had clarified tribal powers, as against the state, over fishing and hunting in Indian Country.

Everything may go smoothly, with the UKB the clear losers in this round, and the state (including Wildlife and hunters/fishing enthusiasts) and tribe coming out winners.

Then again, maybe not.