Lawmakers hope to form coalition

By Judy Gibbs Robinson Published: March 13, 2005
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A bronze Indian warrior graces the top of Oklahoma's state Capitol. Another guards a staircase on the second floor. A bronze Indian woman greets visitors arriving at the building's south entrance.

Finding flesh-and-blood Indians in the Oklahoma Legislature is a little harder, two freshmen representatives are learning.

"I just go around asking people, 'Are you Indian?' They probably think I'm crazy," said Rep. Lisa Johnson-Billy, R-Purcell, a former legislator for the Chickasaw Nation now serving her first term in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.

She and Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, have taken it upon themselves to identify all the card-carrying Indians in the Legislature. Their plan is to form a loose coalition of Indian lawmakers who can serve as a bridge between the Legislature and tribal communities.

"We want them to know that we are here and that we identify and take pride in our tribes. And we want to build a bridge to their communities," said Wesselhoft, a member of the Citizen Potawatomie Nation.

Nationally, Indians appear to be one of the most underrepresented minority groups in state Legislatures, holding one-half of 1 percent of all seats, according to an informal count this year by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Blacks held just more than 8 percent and Hispanics just shy of 3 percent, the conference reported in 2003, the most recent count available.

The conference count includes only two Oklahoma Indian legislators. Wesselhoft and Johnson-Billy say they have identified seven more, including themselves. That does not surprise Sia Davis, keeper of the conference list.

"Our information comes either from them or from newspaper reports. There could be hundreds more for all we know," Davis said.

Six percent
If Oklahoma's Indian lawmaker count stops with the nine identified by the House Republicans and the national conference, it would mean about 6 percent of Oklahoma's 149 legislative seats are held by tribal members.

"That's outstanding," said Jason McCarty, communications director for the National Congress of American Indians. "I would say that's higher than any other state. There are eight in Montana," he said.

Rep. Ray McCarter, D-Marlow, thinks there are more than the nine identified so far, although he does not know who they are.

"I think there are more Democrats that are probably card-carriers," said McCarter, a Chickasaw and the only Democrat on either list.

The Democratic Party gives Indian voters credit for a number of important election victories, including that of Gov. Brad Henry, who is Cherokee. In the 2004 presidential election both parties courted the native vote, and both had sizeable native delegations at their national conventions, McCarty said.


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Indians in the Legislature

This list includes Oklahoma lawmakers identified as American Indian by the National Conference of State Legislatures or by two House freshmen who are compiling their own list. All are members of the House of Representatives:

Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, Cherokee

Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, Creek

Doug Cox, R-Grove, Creek

Shane Jett, R-Norman, Cherokee

Lisa Johnson-Billy, R-Purcell, Chickasaw-Choctaw

Steve Martin, R-Bartlesville, affiliation unknown

Ray McCarter, D-Marlow, Chickasaw

Doug Miller, R-Norman, Cherokee

Paul Wesselhoft, R-Moore, Citizen Band Potawatomie

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