JAMES Anaya, who investigates the rights of indigenous people on behalf of the United Nations, recently visited Oklahoma to take testimony from American Indian tribal officials. The event supposedly focused on how the United States aligns with the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which proclaims the right of indigenous people to exist as distinct cultures.
This isn't Anaya's first go-round in such disputes, but much of his previous work centered on countries such as Suriname, Chile and Guatemala, where the rights of tribal citizens appear far removed from those enjoyed locally.
It's hard to see how Indian tribes in Oklahoma can be fairly compared to indigenous people around the world. Our state's tribal nations are stronger than ever and wield significant political clout. Thanks to compacts signed with the state, Oklahoma's tribes reaped $3.23 billion in casino revenue in 2010, according to the Indian Gaming Industry Report.
Tribal governments enjoy access to the halls of power through lobbying efforts and personal ties. The Legislature's Native American Caucus has 17 members, including the chairmen of the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Public Safety, House A&B Subcommittee on Public Health and Social Services, and House Judiciary Committee.
Furthermore, House Speaker-designate T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, is a member of the Chickasaw Nation — in addition to being the first black lawmaker poised to assume that powerful role. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, is a Chickasaw and an influential figure in Oklahoma and federal politics.
Even when there are disputes, tribal governments are hardly being run over. In Broken Arrow, traditional roles have flipped as the Kialegee Tribal Town seeks to build a casino in opposition to local land-use wishes.
In the fight over water rights between the state of Oklahoma and the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, the tribal governments have accessed the court system afforded to all U.S. citizens to defend their claim. And two former Oklahoma governors, Frank Keating and Brad Henry, touted the tribes in an associated documentary.
As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
In his 2011 report on Suriname, Anaya called for legislation enhancing tribal rights and consultation in a process complying with the recommendations of the International Labor Organization; regional human rights institutions, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; and United Nations treaty monitoring bodies.
If Oklahoma tribal officials think things are complicated today when dealing with a mix of federal, state and tribal jurisdictional issues, how will adding a laundry list of international organizations to the mix make things better?
There's no denying American Indians got the short end of the stick at times in our nation's history. Oklahoma's rich heritage is, in part, a relic of the horrendous Trail of Tears.
But things have changed. Today, American Indian culture is a foundation of mainstream Oklahoma culture. We shouldn't allow international busybodies to undermine the strong relationships among neighbors.