Gov. Mary Fallin pledged Tuesday to work with tribal leaders in Oklahoma, saying she meets weekly with her recently appointed American Indian liaison. She also thanked the tribes for the economic boost they provide the state.
“I personally want to thank you for your leadership, for your service,” Fallin said during a talk with about 50 tribal members. “In Oklahoma, we appreciate and we respect the impact that our tribes have had upon our state's economy, upon the jobs that have been created, certainly upon our culture in our state — keeping the history alive, the traditions alive”
“The tribal governments … are important partners in helping us grow the prosperity of all of our Oklahoma citizens,” she said.
The governor spoke of efforts by her administration to settle a long-standing dispute with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in August by signing a tobacco compact with the tribe, which settled a lawsuit filed by the state over the practice of tribal stores selling cigarettes with the wrong and much cheaper tax stamp.
Fallin said tribes and the state should keep an open dialogue to continue to work together on various public safety issues, such as cross-deputizing law officers and cooperation in the issuing of burn bans.
However, she didn't bring up the topic of water. The Chickasaw and Choctaw nations filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma last year, seeking to maintain control of the water in southeastern Oklahoma. The suit has been delayed while the two sides continue to work with a court-appointed mediator.
Aaron Cooper, Fallin's press secretary, said later the governor didn't address the topic because of a gag order issued by the judge in the case.
“There's not really much we can say,” Cooper said. “The judge has basically told our attorneys not to talk about it.
“Negotiations are ongoing, and Gov. Fallin is involved in those negotiations,” Cooper said.
Brian McClain, executive director of legislative advocacy for the Choctaw Nation, said both sides are withholding comments on the issue.
“We're all under a gag order,” he said.
Tribal leaders react
About 20 of the state's 38 federally recognized tribes were represented at Tuesday's informal session hosted by Fallin in recognition of a national proclamation designating November as Native American Heritage Month.
Several tribal leaders said after the session they were glad to hear the governor is talking regularly about tribal issues with Jacque Hensley, whom the governor appointed in August in the new post of Native American liaison.
Some tribes and American Indians serving in the Legislature were critical of the legislation passed last year and backed by the governor that eliminated the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission and established the liaison post in the executive branch.
The liaison's section of the governor's office is attached to the legal department and includes a deputy counsel and a part-time legal assistant.
Fallin said Hensley is meeting with tribal officials across the state and has held six town hall meetings across the state.
Fallin said her office has made it a priority to work with tribal governments and called the liaison post “one of the best things we have done.”
“The jury's still out,” said Rep. Larry Glenn, D-Miami, who represents 10 tribes in his northeastern Oklahoma district and voted against the measure that the created the liaison post.
Ron Sparkman, chief of the Shawnee Tribe, and a member of the Indian Affairs Commission when it was disbanded, said it is too early to determine whether the liaison post will work.
“We were very concerned about where it was going to go,” he said. “I look forward to working with the governor.”
He said he appreciates the effort that Hensley has shown, including visiting his tribe and attending tribal meetings.
“She is the voice of the tribes to the governor, and that will be fine,” Sparkman said.
“We'll try to work with it. I don't have anything negative to say about that. It's something the governor wanted to do and that's her prerogative, and the Legislature supported that view.”
McClain said he considers the liaison post “a step in the right direction.”
Fallin cites report
Fallin cited a report released in October that showed Oklahoma's 38 federally recognized Indian tribes have an estimated $10.8 billion impact in the state's production of goods and services, with more than 70 percent of that effect coming from the tribes' gambling operations.
Tribal government and business operations directly employ more than 50,000 people, and support a total of 87,174 full-time jobs in the state, according to an analysis by the Steven C. Agee Economic Research & Policy Institute at Oklahoma City University. Gaming accounted for more than half of those jobs.