In a recent op-ed, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt called for a renegotiation of the highly successful tribal gaming compacts, government-to-government agreements that have fueled our home state, public education and job creation for more than 15 years. He argued that new compacts should reflect “market conditions for the gaming industry,” which he implied would set tribes’ payments to the state at a much higher percentage of revenues.
Unfortunately, Gov. Stitt’s approach ignores the history of tribes in Oklahoma and the many contributions made by tribes, including the Cherokee Nation, to our state. The ability of tribes in Oklahoma to thrive as sovereign nations is one of the state’s greatest competitive advantages. It would be a serious mistake for our state government to engage with tribes like we were just any another industry, ignoring our unique economic, cultural and governmental contributions.
Decades before statehood, tribes built Oklahoma’s first modern infrastructure and institutions, establishing settlements that grew into thriving cities and towns and founding the territory’s first public schools and institutions of higher education. The Cherokee Nation’s original Supreme Court building still stands as Oklahoma’s oldest public building, now serving as a history museum.
In later decades, the federal government and non-Indian settlers tried to dismantle tribal governments, shut down tribal institutions and divide the land, but tribes in Oklahoma did not vanish. We maintained our tribal culture and identity in the face of this existential threat. Through activism and lawsuits, Oklahoma and the United States eventually recognized tribal rights to sovereignty and self-governance.
Through self-determination, tribes have prospered in business and rebuilt government institutions. As of 2017, tribes had a nearly $13 billion economic impact on the state, according to a new study commissioned by the Oklahoma Tribal Finance Consortium. In that year, tribes directly employed more than 50,000 Oklahomans and indirectly supported over 96,000 jobs.
The contribution of tribes is not only as successful businesses, but also as effective governments. Profits from tribal businesses are invested back into the community through the development of affordable housing, health care facilities, education, infrastructure and job creation.
The contribution of tribes goes far beyond the exclusivity fees for tribal gaming. Tribes in Oklahoma contributed $198 million for Oklahoma education in 2017, including exclusivity payments to the state, donations to schools, scholarships and tribal education programs. Tribes contributed more than $42 million for road construction and maintenance in their jurisdictions. Tribes operated health clinics and hospitals and provided or reimbursed care for thousands of Oklahomans, especially filling gaps in under-served, rural parts of the state.
Cherokee Nation, the largest tribal government in the state, is currently constructing a 469,000-square-foot outpatient health facility through a joint venture project with the Indian Health Service. When it opens later this year, it will be the largest tribal health facility in the country.
Additionally, Cherokee Nation Career Services provides vocational and on-the-job training for Cherokees and collaborates with the state, cities and chambers of commerce to attract businesses to Oklahoma. Recent successes of these recruiting efforts include Amazon and Macy’s fulfillment centers, which are respectively bringing thousands of jobs to Tulsa and Owasso.
Tribal governments provide assistance with housing, food and nutrition, child care and development, child support and elder assistance – all areas with huge unmet needs in Oklahoma. Tribal courts handle many child welfare and adoption cases, as well as prosecuting offenders who abuse women and children.
Though it was not always of our own free will, tribes have made a permanent home here in Oklahoma. Tribes have outlasted all attempts to terminate our governments and disperse our people. We have built prosperous communities, nearly lost it all, and rebuilt again. Native culture and institutions are one of Oklahoma’s greatest renewable resources, and all Oklahomans are better off when our state government recognizes that fact.