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Bob Doucette: It's 'game on' between Stitt, tribes in 2022

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Gov. Kevin Stitt

In a six-minute-long speech Monday at the Oklahoma History Center, Gov. Kevin Stitt recycled some controversial talking points about the McGirt decision. But it was Stitt’s prediction of how Martin Luther King Jr. would have felt about the Supreme Court ruling that drew some fresh criticism.

To anyone watching the war of words between Oklahoma tribal leaders and the Governor’s Office, the past several days have been a dizzying display of escalation.

During a meeting of Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes on Friday, Cherokee National Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said he’d oppose Gov. Kevin Stitt’s reelection.

Choctaw Chief Gary Batton and Muscogee Principal Chief David Hill likewise criticized Stitt’s handling of a number of issues important to the tribes, with Hill saying they want to “get someone in office that’s going to work with the tribes and not against us,” according to The Oklahoman newspaper.

The tribes have been at odds with Stitt since the governor tried to force the tribes to renegotiate their gaming compacts with the state. That went nowhere, with a federal judge siding with the tribes’ claim that those agreements automatically renewed.

Tensions were further fueled by a similar breakdown over compacts the state had with the tribes over hunting licenses. As with the gaming issue, Stitt wanted a better deal for the state, and the tribes believed the compacts were fine the way they were.

That impasse pretty much scrapped the system, one in which the tribes paid the state $2 apiece for licenses that were then distributed for free to tribal members. In turn, the state received hundreds of thousands of dollars for the licenses, plus tens of millions of federal dollars based on how many new licensed hunters and anglers the state could rightfully claim.

But the biggest bone of contention centers on the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision, which ruled that the Muscogee Nation’s reservation was never disestablished by Congress. State courts have ruled that McGirt also applies to the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Quapaw and Seminole reservations.

The tribes took this as a win for Indigenous sovereignty; Stitt and state Attorney General John O’Connor say it’s causing chaos in the state’s criminal court system and could have more far-reaching implications that threaten state authority over eastern Oklahoma.

The state is seeking to have the Supreme Court overturn the McGirt decision.

One might have thought there were brief signs of hope last week when O’Connor, speaking to the Republican Women’s Club of Tulsa County, told attendees that he’s reached out to the tribes. Hoskin confirmed that he has received a call from O’Connor, mostly to talk about issues relating to McGirt.

But Hoskin said that conversation was months ago, and with the 2022 campaign season heating up, McGirt is going to be at the center of tribal opposition to Stitt’s candidacy.

Stitt appeared to welcome the confrontation, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. during a Monday observance in Oklahoma City of the national holiday honoring King’s life and legacy.

“I believe that freedom fighters like Dr. King would be astounded, maybe even disgusted, by the McGirt ruling,” Stitt said during his speech. “The ruling created two sets of rules for Oklahomans based on their race. In eastern Oklahoma right now there is not equal protection under the law.”

(It should be noted that King championed Indigenous rights, going so far as to say this in his 1963 book, “Why We Can’t Wait”: “We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.”)

Tough talk aside, solving the complexities caused by McGirt appears to be happening more between tribal and local officials.

Tribes are recognizing legal gaps where crimes either don’t rise to the level of federal prosecution for major offenses or aren’t covered by tribal law.

And in Broken Arrow, City Manager Michael Spurgeon said the Muscogee Nation has “bent over backwards” to work with the city in navigating this new legal maze.

Cross-deputization, state-tribal compacts and expanded tribal court systems may offer actual solutions to the far-reaching set of challenges the McGirt decision has brought, barring the Supreme Court’s reversing itself.

But policy and politics are not the same. On the political front, a confrontation seems set. Whether tribal members follow their chiefs’ lead is yet to be seen — the tribal vote is far from monolithic in Oklahoma. But a clash is coming, and for the tribes and the Governors’ Office, it’s game on.


Tulsa World Opinion: There’s always someone ready to take away a right

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