COMMENTARY – An Editor’s Notebook: Tumult and Timeliness in Oklahoma’s Indian Country

Oklahoma City – There was tumult in Indian Country last month, blended with timeless assertions of relevance from tribes that often get left out of the power games in Washington and Oklahoma City.

The Otoe-Missouria Tribe and the Comanche Nation garnered headlines with a separate peace with Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt — an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation who has jousted with the powerful Chickasaw and Cherokee and allies. The pacts drew outrage from the powerful tribes and their frequent ally, Attorney General Mike Hunter. 

John Shotton of the Otoe-Missouria and William Nelson, Sr. of the Comanche struck charitable notes, saying in a joint press release: “We respect the Governor and the Attorney General, who both have a track record of supporting tribal sovereignty. We believe the compact language is consistent with both positions as it says event wagering will be permitted only ‘to the extent such wagers are authorized by law.’”

Yes, sports book is not presently allowed in Oklahoma, so they won’t “engage in such gaming under the express language of the compacts.  … There is absolutely nothing unlawful about entering into a compact that guides the parties’ behavior and expectations in contemplation of potential future events.”

More politically powerful tribes have expanded gaming at every opportunity. Oklahoma’s dominant tribes offered tournament blackjack games when poker and card games were otherwise specifically outlawed. Approvals for event wagering in the compact will trigger “to the extent authorized by law” meaning when proper approvals are in place. Why can’t smaller tribes push a little?

CapitolBeatOK and The City Sentinel defended the Comanche and Otoe-Missouria position while reporting recent events.  Their aspirations are legitimate and the only path forward for smaller tribes against the Chickasaw-dominated juggernaut. For decades, every close call in Oklahoma’s Indian Country has favored Big Tribes over smaller players.
That era, driven by malfeasance at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, may be ending. 
While the state A.G. maneuvers and defenders of the status quo complain, credit Gov. Stitt and his team for a better deal with small tribes, and for the people of Oklahoma. 

The Comanche Nation, with about 17,000 enrolled members, is headquartered outside of Lawton. Comanche once were nomadic, with lands stretching across several states.
The Otoe-Missouria operate from the north-central part of the state, in Red Rock, with about 3,288 members. Their first reservation was in Nebraska and Kansas. 
Each tribe has long asserted rights beyond their modern restrictions. The Comanche continue a legal battle against the powerful Chickasaw over the latter’s construction of a controvesial Red River casino, at a location the Comanche assert is properly theirs. 

* * * 
Though Oklahoma’s first COVID-19 case wasn’t identified until March 6, Citizen Potawatomi Nation Health Services (CPNHS) was ready.

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation (CPN), headquartered in Shawnee, deserves credit for aggressive moves to combat the novel coronavirus that has transformed American culture in the last two months. 

CPN Chief Medical Officer George A. Vascellaro, D.O., and Dr. Kassi Roselius, M.D., M.P.H. have focused tribal energy on fighting the virus since before Day One. They have worked with the CPN human resources and emergency management directors, Tribal Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett and Vice-Chairman Linda Capps.

CPN officials partnered with the Pottawatomie County Health Department for drive-through  testing. Chairman Barrett said  tribal health services “have been ahead of the COVID-19 preparedness curve and will remain so in the months ahead.” 

Rocky is always quotable, and usually right. CPN leadership “has done everything in its power to care for patients’ essential medical needs while guarding the safety of patients, employees, families and the community. We will continue to be vigilant and do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

This is a “shout out.” Well done, Rocky – and all. Can’t wait for the sequel. 

NOTE: Patrick B. McGuigan is publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper, and founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service. He has frequently covered Indian Country, nationally and in Oklahoma. He won first place in diversity journalism (2012) from the Society of Professional Journalists, Oklahoma professional chapter, for his coverage of the late Archie Hoffman’s efforts to regain control over Cheyenne & Arapaho lands near Fort Reno, in western Oklahoma.