SO far, so good in the new era of relations between the governor's office and the state's Indian tribes. But then the “so far” doesn't include discussions of the most contentious of several state-tribal conflicts — water rights.
Gov. Mary Fallin met with tribal leaders Tuesday. Her new tribal affairs liaison has been meeting with them regularly. In the Fallin era, the liaison replaced the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission, which (unlike the liaison's office) was independent of the executive branch. The change in format for official state-tribal contact drew fire from some tribal leaders when it was proposed.
Tuesday's meeting seemed amicable enough, however, and offered a marked contrast to the days of Republican Fallin's Democratic predecessor, Brad Henry. The Indian Affairs Commission was operative then, but the governor's office had heated exchanges with some tribal leaders over tobacco compacts. Tribal gaming was also a big issue at the time but has since become more routine.
Jacque Secondine Hensley, the governor's liaison, was appointed to the post in August. Fallin is saying the right things about a partnership between a state government run by Republicans and tribes that are largely supportive of Democrats. Neither the governor nor the tribes are saying anything about water rights because they're under a gag order stemming from litigation over who has rights to water in southeastern Oklahoma river basins.
A tribal lawsuit is now in the hands of a court-appointed mediator. The outcome has far-reaching implications for Oklahoma's economy, including the ability of big cities to contract for water in southeast lakes. One of the motivations for the conflict is the tribes' claim that they were shut out of negotiations between the state and Oklahoma City for Sardis Lake water.
That deal involves Oklahoma City paying the state's debt to the federal government for building Sardis. We were not alone in questioning the tribes' seemingly belated interest in the deal. Nevertheless, they have a right to press their claims and the question of water rights needs to be settled instead of lingering the way the tobacco compacts have.
An Oklahoma City University study puts the direct economic impact of Indian tribes at 50,000 jobs and the indirect impact at 87,174 jobs. The tribes, criticized for selling their own car tags, have been paying for state highway improvements. They also help relieve the state of some of its burden to provide health care for the poor.
Many of the jobs cited in the study are related to casinos, one of the fastest-growing industries in the state over the past decade or so. Tribes are using casino proceeds to help members and the state as a whole. Fallin and other state officials have a legitimate need not only to listen to tribal concerns but to act in their best interests, when it doesn't conflict with the interests of the entire state.
T.W. Shannon, the next speaker of the Oklahoma House, has Chickasaw heritage, as does one of his mentors, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole. Many Oklahoma politicians can claim Indian heritage; many of them — like Shannon and Cole — are Republicans. There's no disconnect between being a conservative Republican and being an enrolled tribal member.
Sovereignty remains a launching point for conflict, however, and Fallin's liaison can play a critical role in keeping everyone talking — at least when no gag order is in effect. When the Indian Affairs Commission was abolished by Republican lawmakers, we said we weren't sure it was a good idea. We're still not sure, but the results so far are good enough to say that the new approach deserves more time to prove its worth.