Arbitrate This: Something Strange, and Something Good, while hoping for a “win-win”

There’s something strange, in the neighborhood.
The “neighborhood” is our beloved state. And, the “something strange” is the new posture of Oklahoma’s most powerful Native American tribe, the Chickasaw, in negotiations over the state compact(s) on Indian gaming.

Some 40 days ago, a letter to state officials was sent purportedly on behalf of 31 tribes. It demanded that Governor Kevin Stitt agree to automatic renewal of the existing tribal compact(s) before re-negotiation of anything substantive. 

In a meeting with staff from Gov. Stitt’s office and the state A.G. on Monday (October 28), the tribes continued for the most part to say the same things – except Chickasaw Gov. Bill Annoatubby. To be sure (and it’s a good thing for all parties), most of the tribes were (on Monday) in a room talking some things over with Stitt’s staff and state Attorney General Mike Hunter. That’s sort of new – but absolutely new was Bill Annoatubby saying tribes should consider arbitration, at Hunter’s behest, to speed up the process. Many in the room were jolted to hear Annoatubby saying arbitration should be on the table. 

What changed? For one thing, the end of 2019 is nearing. The compact(s) will expire at midnight on December 31. A practical hope, no doubt, to avoid litigation finally brought about Monday’s parley. 

But something else has changed. The Chickasaw Nation has been the most recalcitrant of any tribe in opposition to even discussing the compact. No wonder, perhaps, in that they are the greatest beneficiary of the status quo, which has (through a combination of federal and state action) empowered sweetheart deals for the Chickasaw and other Big Tribes, at the expense of the state government and of smaller tribal nations. 

Another thing that has changed is that former U.S. Rep. Dan Boren left his high-paying job with the Chickasaws to take the reins at a new banking operation. Gov. Annoatubby, fresh from unopposed reelection to his own lucrative job, has led a pro-status-quo advertising campaign with news organizations, hoping to mute coverage of Chickasaw power plays. Now, the Chickasaw executive is (sort-of) making nice with Oklahoma’s chief executive, himself a member of the Cherokee Nation. 

Stitt seeks more equitable compact provisions. He deserves credit for standing firm enough to trigger meetings. He should be wary of Hunter’s and Anoatubby’s willingness to go into arbitration, as should the other tribes – particularly smaller nations who have been aced out of business opportunities that the monopolistic status quo had reserved for the haves, at the expense of have-nots and have-littles. 
Now is a time for real conversation, not hurry-up “arbitration” to sustain a status quo that benefits a few.

No Halloween surprise here: It’s time for real negotiations and new compacts, as Stitt advocates what he deemed, in an October 29 statement, “a win-win for all 4 million Oklahomans.”

NOTE: This story was posted early Tuesday, October 29. It was revised Tuesday afternoon to correct references to Gov. Stitt’s staff, rather than the chief executive himself, participating in the Monday meeting.