Gov. Kevin Stitt continues to clash with Oklahoma’s tribes in second term
OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt started his second term aiming for a fresh start with Oklahoma’s tribes, but his past year in office has been a continuation of much of the same state-tribal conflict that shaped his first term.
Throughout the year, Stitt has continued to clash with tribal leaders over intergovernmental agreements and tribal sovereignty in disputes that have continued to spill into the courtroom.
At a Native American celebration at the governor’s mansion in November, Stitt said the state and the tribes should work together. He also expressed optimism that some of the inflammatory rhetoric will die down.
But whether the governor will change his confrontational approach to working with the tribes remains to be seen.
“We should be working together,” Stitt said on Nov. 28. “So, (to) kind of die down some of the rhetoric, that’d be my goal for this next season.”
The event at the governor’s mansion celebrating and honoring Native American heritage and families may have been the first of its kind, but the leaders of some of the state’s largest tribes said they were not invited.
In a mid-November interview, Stitt, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, was upbeat as he talked about his relationship with other tribal members. He also praised his new Native American liaison, Wes Nofire, whose appointment drew condemnation from the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes.
“My door’s always open,” Stitt said. “I want to have a good relationship with everyone. I have a great relationship with tribal members.”
“If you’re asking me to move away from protecting Oklahoma when I’m dealing with another government, I’m not going to do that,” Stitt said. “My job as the governor of Oklahoma is to protect Oklahoma’s interests.”
Rep. Ken Luttrell, R-Ponca City, said the governor’s relationship with the tribes has worsened this year. Luttrell, who is Cherokee, co-chairs the Oklahoma Legislature’s Native American caucus and he has worked with Sen. Bill Coleman, R-Ponca City, to try to legalize sports betting.
“We’ve continued to reach out to the Governor’s Office and invite him to our Native American caucus meetings,” Luttrell said. “Sen. Coleman and I have offered to facilitate a sit down with the tribes to discuss gaming and try to find a path forward we can all agree on.”
Luttrell said his attempts were unsuccessful.
But he remains optimistic that Stitt can improve his working relationship with the tribes through open-mindedness and cooperation.
“I’m hopeful we can get past this,” Luttrell said. “In my conversations with tribal leaders, they’re hopeful, too. They’re eternal optimists and hope for better relations and working together to make the entire state better for everyone.”
Stitt personally invited the leaders of all 39 tribes to his January inauguration in an attempt to start fresh in his second term. Many tribal leaders attended the ceremony and expressed optimism about working with the governor going forward.
Leaders of the Five Tribes endorsed Stitt’s Democratic opponent, Joy Hofmeister, in last year’s gubernatorial race. Stitt also accused the tribes of funding tens of millions in dark money attacks against his reelection campaign.
After the election, Stitt, who has butted heads with tribal leaders since he unsuccessfully sought to renegotiate the state’s gaming compacts, expressed a desire to reset those relationships.
But in the months since, Stitt vetoed nearly every piece of legislation supported by the tribes, including a bipartisan measure allowing Indigenous students to wear tribal regalia at school graduation ceremonies.
He took top lawmakers to court over the Legislature’s decision to extend for one year state-tribal tobacco and motor vehicle registration compacts as negotiations between his office and the tribes stalled.
Legislative leaders have indicated that if Stitt remains unable to negotiate with the tribes, the Legislature could take a bigger role in compacting moving forward. Meanwhile, Stitt maintains only the governor has the authority to compact with tribes.
The governor’s feud with the tribes has drawn the ire of GOP Attorney General Gentner Drummond and some Republican lawmakers who have criticized Stitt’s spending on private attorneys to represent his office in various legal disputes.
Stitt has continued to criticize the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 McGirt decision, which found that much of eastern Oklahoma remains reservation land.
The governor opposed President Joe Biden’s appointment of former Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill to a federal judgeship. Despite Stitt’s concerns about Hill’s record as an attorney, the U.S. Senate confirmed her appointment, making her the first Indigenous female federal judge in Oklahoma.
Stitt also backed the Department of Public Safety’s decision to ticket drivers with tribal license plates who don’t live within their tribe’s boundaries. The agency’s apparent change in the enforcement of tribal license plate protocols shocked and angered many of the tribes.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., one of Stitt’s most outspoken critics, said his tribe is grateful for its productive relationships with local, state and federal government officials.
“It’s unfortunate that Gov. Stitt has wasted time and taxpayer resources on legal and political challenges to tribal sovereignty, rather than collaborating with tribes in a way that best serves Oklahomans,” he said in a statement. “If the governor instead moves forward in a manner that respects and recognizes our rights, the Cherokee Nation will be a valued and enthusiastic partner.”
Five other tribes did not respond to requests for comment.
At the governor’s Native American celebration in November, several tribal citizens said Stitt and the tribes must find ways to work together.
Choogie Kingfisher, a Cherokee Nation storyteller from Tahlequah, remained optimistic that Stitt and tribal leaders could resolve their disagreements.
“I think they’ll eventually work it out,” he said. “We all have to work together in order to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. Even though we’re tribal citizens, we’re still Oklahoma citizens, and so we have to find that common ground.”