Tom Cole

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Norman, reflects on the year in Congress during an interview. He continues to advocate for tribal sovereignty.

NORMAN — Congressman Tom Cole, R-Moore, spoke passionately about the need for tribal sovereignty and the contributions tribal nations make to the state of Oklahoma during a symposium on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Cole, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, has long been a vocal advocate for Native American rights in Congress and in Oklahoma; he co-chairs the Congressional Native American Caucus, and is outspoken on Native rights.

“I appreciate those that are non-Native that recognize the importance of tribal sovereignty to the future of Oklahoma,” Cole said at Monday’s Sovereignty Symposium, hosted by the Oklahoma State Supreme Court. “Oklahoma has always been Indian Country.”

Cole credited much of Oklahoma’s success to the tribes, noting that tribal nations bring “thousands of visitors” to the state every year, and that some of the “premier museums, not just in the state, but in the country” are related to the presence of tribes.

“Oklahoma was one of the top 10 states in terms of vaccine rollout in the early days. Why? Because tribal governments not only had an allocation of vaccines, they not only had resources available to them from the federal government, but they shared those resources and vaccines with those around them in partnership for an extraordinary achievement,” he said.

Cole also touched on the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt v. Oklahoma decision, which found Congress never disestablished the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals later expanded the decision to apply to the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations.

Cole’s views on tribal sovereignty often clash with those of Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has fought hard to overturn the McGirt decision.

One of the Stitt administration’s main arguments against McGirt is that tribal governments are overwhelmed and can’t handle the new case load, and that their sovereignty is hurting Oklahoma as a whole.

Stitt and his administration have fought persistently to have the Supreme Court overturn the decision, to no avail so far. In a written argument to the Supreme Court, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said no decision made by the high court in recent years has had a “more immediate and destabilizing effect on life in an American State than McGirt.”

In a statement to The Oklahoman, Stitt spokesperson Carly Atchinson said, “McGirt is the biggest issue that’s ever hit any state since the Civil War. The Supreme Court’s ruling stripped Oklahoma of one of the most basic functions of a state, which is the ability to enforce the rule of law, and therefore threatens Oklahoma’s ability to exist. This is not an issue of tribes versus Kevin Stitt, it is an issue of fundamental sovereignty of a state in the United States of America.”

Cole thinks differently.

“(Tribal) sovereignty has been a good thing for the state of Oklahoma,” Cole said. “It’s been good economically, good in terms of opportunity, good in terms of attracting others to us and presenting us in a positive light.”

The tribes are one of Oklahoma’s largest employers, paying residents nearly $4.5 billion a year, Cole said. When that pay is combined with the additional sales and income tax the tribes bring in, the tribes’ total economic impact on the state is an “astonishing” $13 billion, he said.

He also argued that tribal sovereignty will “continue to grow in the years ahead.”

But Cole believes that the state should be empowering the tribes, not trying to rid them of their sovereignty. He said in recent years, Oklahomans have learned that “Native people could deal better with their own problems and help their own people more if they’re empowered to do so.”

He doesn’t dispute there will be bumps along the road, but said those bumps shouldn’t deter the state from working alongside the tribes.

“Sovereignty has been a good thing for Oklahoma,” he said. “As it’s grown stronger, we’ve done better. More of our people have been employed, we’ve had more resources to devote toward the pressing problems of our day and we’ve actually progressed, and I think expanded our footprint and our reputation nationally as a diverse and compassionate people making progress in the right direction.”

But Cole said tribal sovereignty should not be honored just because of the economic impact it has on the state — it should be honored because it’s the right thing to do.

“Long before there was a state of Oklahoma, there were tribal governments here, and those governments have persisted throughout our history, and quite frankly, are going to remain a vital part of our future going forward,” Cole said.

Reese Gorman covers politics and COVID-19 for The Transcript; reach him at rgorman@normantranscript.com or @reeseg_3.

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