OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt’s ongoing feud with many Native American tribes in the state has become so contentious that other Republicans in the Legislature and the state’s attorney general are considering pushing him out of tribal negotiations altogether.
These agreements, called covenants, have been made between the state and tribes over the past two decades to distribute revenue from gambling, vehicle tags, and the sale of tobacco and fuel on tribal lands, all of which provide significant revenue streams into state and tribal coffers.
Tribal casinos alone paid nearly $200 million to the state last year in deals that gave tribes the exclusive right to offer casino games.
Republican leaders in the state publicly grumble that Stitt’s hostile stance toward the tribes, including his veto on extending some covenants, costs more than money. They say it also erodes the relationship with tribal leaders that, while sometimes testy, has been nurtured for decades under Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Even (former) President Trump has mentioned that he doesn’t know why the governor has such animosity toward the tribes,” said Senate Pro Tempore Chairman Greg Treat, a Republican from Oklahoma City. “That’s nonsense.”
Stitt’s relationship with many tribal leaders has soured since he unsuccessfully tried to rework gambling contracts by renegotiating the state’s share of casino revenue early in his first term. Many of the state’s most powerful tribes tried to use their political influence last year to prevent Stitt from winning a second term.
This year, Stitt, himself a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, responded by vetoing virtually all tribal-approved legislation, including a bill that would have allowed Native American students to wear tribal regalia at graduation ceremonies.
Stitt says he’s trying to broker the best deal for all of the state’s more than 4 million people, especially when it comes to tobacco pacts.
Stitt worries that unless the covenants are renegotiated, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark McGirt ruling on tribal sovereignty, which determined that much of eastern Oklahoma remains a Native American reservation, could allow tribes to undermine non-tribal retailers in that area.
Under current covenants, tribal tobacco sales are limited to retail outlets on tribal trust lands, but since the McGirt decision, courts have determined that more than 40% of the state is now within historic reservation boundaries.
The row between Stitt and the tribes has now spilled over to the Republican-controlled Legislature, which is due to meet in a special session on Monday just to override Stitt’s vetoes on bills that would extend the tribal tobacco and motor vehicle pacts for another year.
Treat said he was prepared to give the governor another year to negotiate with the tribes “in good faith,” but if no progress is demonstrated, the legislature could take back the right to negotiate the compacts. Although the governor’s office has historically handled compact negotiations with tribes, Treat said state law also allows the legislature to do so.
Republican Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond also criticized Stitt’s posturing against the tribes and urged the legislature to let him assume the defense of Oklahoma’s interests in an ongoing legal fight over gambling pacts involving the governor’s office and the Cherokee Nation.
“Oklahoma’s relationship with our tribal nations has suffered greatly due to the governor’s divisive rhetoric and relentless legal attacks,” Drummond said.
Five of Oklahoma’s most powerful tribes – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole Nations – issued a joint resolution last week accusing the governor of failing to negotiate in good faith and threatening “to undo decades of work and harm cooperation between tribes and states for generations to come.” Stitt disputes that he is not negotiating in good faith.
Feuds between governors and Native American tribes are not unique to Oklahoma.
Republican legislative leaders in Arizona in 2020 threatened to block tribes from renewing gambling licenses, a key source of funding for many tribes, if they had unresolved disputes over water rights.
In Connecticut, at the height of the pandemic, the state’s governor engaged in a rare dispute with his two federally recognized tribes, the Mohegan Tribe and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, over the tribes’ decision to reopen their massive casinos.
But in Oklahoma, where tribes are vitally important to the economy, especially in disadvantaged rural areas, even fellow Republicans are scratching their heads at Stitt’s continued hostility to tribes.
Treat described Stitt’s 2021 choice not to renew the tribal hunting and fishing pacts as a “dumb decision” that cost the state $35 million. Stitt’s office said at the time that the pacts were unfair because tribal citizens could purchase licenses at a cheaper rate.
The number of licensed hunters and anglers in Oklahoma, which is used to calculate federal funds for wildlife conservation, has been reduced as many Native Americans opt to obtain licenses from tribes, who no longer have an agreement to remit funds to the state.
The governor’s concerns about the fallout from the Supreme Court’s McGirt ruling were heightened last month when a federal appeals court determined the city of Tulsa lacked the authority to issue a Choctaw citizen a speeding ticket.
“Citizens of Tulsa, if your city government can’t enforce something as simple as a traffic violation, there will be no rule of law in eastern Oklahoma,” Stitt said.
Stitt’s argument about a cascading effect of the McGirt decision is valid. Already, thousands of Native American taxpayers in Oklahoma have sought exemption from paying state income tax under regulations governing the taxation of tribal citizens in “Indian Country.”
Okmulgee woman and Muscogee (Creek) citizen Alicia Stroble claims she is exempt from paying state income tax in a case pending before the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Several tribes filed “friends of the court” memorials siding with Stroble’s position.
“It won’t work,” Stitt said. “We cannot have two different systems.”
While many tribal sovereignty issues remain unresolved in the wake of the McGirt decision, tribal law experts say the solution can be found by working with tribes rather than fighting them in court.
“There has to be a way for us to work together, and that tends to be the answer to almost every question,” said Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation Attorney General. “Alternatives are always painful and expensive litigation.”
Associated Press reporters Felicia Fonseca in Arizona and Susan Haigh in Connecticut contributed to this report.