TAHLEQUAH — The Cherokee Nation Tribal Council unanimously approved legislation Monday night to allow the possibility of withholding car tag revenue from school districts that deny indigenous students the right to observe cultural practices on campus.
With no debate, the council approved a substitute version of an amendment to the nation’s Motor Vehicle and Licensing Tax Act that allows the tribe to deny car tag revenue to school districts at the discretion of the principal chief should a school refuse to recognize the “cultural, religious or historical significance of the Cherokee Nation and/or other federally recognized tribes.”
It also allows the possibility of withholding funds from schools that are “not proactive in addressing anti-Native issues” such as a ban on wearing regalia during graduations or other “milestone events.”
However, the substitute version that was adopted Monday night includes provisions for the tribe to work with school districts to address the situation before putting away the checkbook.
“It is in our national interest to work with our schools. The substitute language leads from the position that we will work with schools to provide guidance with respect to adhering to those protected activities that students can engage in at school,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “If there is an egregious situation, and thankfully we have not had that because we have good relationships with our school districts, … then we would look in future years as to whether the funding should be affected.”
Under the act, the Cherokee Nation gives 38% of the revenue from its car tag sales to public school districts and charter schools that have Cherokee students and have an attendance area at least partially within the tribe’s 14-county vehicle tag compact jurisdictional area.
In 2019 alone, the tribe handed out $5.7 million to 108 school districts and charter schools across northeastern Oklahoma, including $1.1 million just to Tulsa County districts.
The money schools receive is based on the number of Cherokee students enrolled and is not specifically earmarked for any single program or purchase.
Earlier this year, the tribe intervened on behalf of a Cherokee student in Vian who wanted to wear an eagle feather at her high school graduation but was denied that opportunity. The school district eventually reversed course after Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter wrote a letter to the school board indicating that the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act covers the practice.
“This gives my (administration) marching orders to take a look at the schools and make sure they’re adhering to the students’ cultural rights,” Hoskin said Tuesday.
“We want to lend a hand of cooperation, not just tell a school district they are wrong. I have heard enough over the years that we should mean what we say when we say rights should be respected. This is a considerable amount of money that we transfer to the schools to support public education.”