Consistent federal policies regarding Tribal Sovereignty help Oklahoma’s economy

Most people in this country today agree that indigenous tribes, who lived in the Americas before Europeans arrived, were treated less than fairly by their new neighbors. Unfortunately, the inequitable and inconsistent policies with regard to Native tribes are not strictly a thing of colonial or even early American history. Even into the second half of the 20th century, the federal government implemented new versions of its on-again/off-again assimilation policies. These policies, often implemented without a full understanding of the differences between the tribes’ cultures and ways of self governance, proved to be hugely detrimental to the various tribal ways of life. Luckily, there has been a tremendous amount of resiliency shown in response.

Last week, as representatives from every Oklahoma tribe gathered in Washington DC for a Native American Summit, I gathered with the rest of my Leadership Oklahoma class in Tahlequah to learn more about Native American issues in Oklahoma. It was appropriate for both to occur at the same time. The destiny of Oklahoma’s tribes is heavily affected by policies in DC. Since the tribes have such a significant impact on the economy of our state, the recent summit affects everyone in Oklahoma, whether or not you are a member of a tribe.

As Senator Brian Bingman pointed out in an address to the class, tribes have a tremendously positive impact on our state. In 2006, the estimated economic impact of tribes in Oklahoma was $15 billion. In fact, the budgets of the tribes in Oklahoma are collectively larger than the state budget. When tribes are successful, the Oklahoma economy benefits.

This is just one of the reasons the summit in DC, which was the fulfillment of a campaign promise made by President Obama, is so welcomed.  One reality that came across throughout the LOK weekend was that the tribes are experiencing success right now. Many of them have benefited from visionary internal leadership that has allowed them to build valuable infrastructures within their nations. In some cases, gaming revenues have been able to serve as capitalization for an array of diversified and successful business ventures.

However, as I learned more of the details of treaties and federal statutes or policies that have shaped the lives of generations of tribal members without their consent, another thing was clear. The prosperity that many tribes have recently achieved is precarious in nature. A change in Federal, or even state, policy could once again change the course of their hard-earned progress.

I was encouraged by reports from some of the tribal leaders who attended the summit.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith said that the unique aspect of this summit in DC was that the president gave an assignment to his cabinet to report back in 90 days with a plan to execute an order implementing government-to-government relations between the United States and tribal nations. As history has shown, tribes have not always been consulted regarding decisions that impact their peoples.

Chairman Jeff Houser of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe (and a fellow Leadership OK Class XXIII member) echoed the feeling that this was a great first step and said that he is interested to see the next step in 90 days.

What may be the most encouraging report for me came from Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby (Leadership OK Class III). He enthusiastically reported that President Obama knows more about Indian tribes and tribal sovereignty than any other president with whom he has had contact.

After becoming more acquainted with the checkered history of tribal sovereignty, I am encouraged to hear that the President, who will help shape the federal policies regarding tribes, has a firm grasp of the mistakes of the past. With that understanding, we look forward to consistent policy that will allow Oklahoma tribes to continue to thrive. This will help drive our state’s economy more than most of us recognize.


Oklahoma Policy Insititute (OK Policy) advances equitable and fiscally responsible policies that expand opportunity for all Oklahomans through non-partisan research, analysis, and advocacy.

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