Like most of the world, Oklahoma has struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, the state has not been alone in taking on this public health and economic crisis. Cherokee Nation and the other Native Nations in Oklahoma have been crucial partners during these hard times, whether by adopting strong public health policies, distributing PPE and vaccines, or sharing emergency economic relief.
Pandemic response is just the latest example of how Oklahoma’s tribes are one of our state’s biggest and most unique competitive advantages. The best policy for all four million Oklahomans is to ensure that tribes and the state have a strong collaboration for our mutual prosperity. At the same time, we always look out for the sovereign rights that Cherokee Nation has held, sometimes at great cost, since before Oklahoma existed.
To keep that collaboration strong and safeguard our sovereignty, Cherokee Nation pays close attention what’s happening in the Oklahoma Legislature. We advocate for legislation that benefits our tribal nation, the state, and Cherokee communities. In the coming legislative session, which begins on February 1st, we are watching numerous bills, including those that support Cherokee students in our public schools and that fight the terrible problem of missing and murdered indigenous people.
One important measure this year will allow Oklahoma public school districts to track the tribal citizenship of students. At Cherokee Nation, we already keep track of this data and use it to distribute millions of dollars annually to Oklahoma public schools serving Cherokees. However, other tribes and the school districts themselves may not have that capacity, limiting their ability to tailor cultural and educational materials to the specific backgrounds of their students. By not fully tracking tribal affiliation, schools may also be missing out on federal funds for Indian students.
Cherokee Nation will also be supporting legislation to address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people. A measure known as Ida’s law, named after Ida Beard, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes who has been missing since 2015, is receiving strong bipartisan support. Ida’s Law would create an office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
We are also supporting other bills to provide additional law enforcement training on how best to respond to MMIP cases and to create a new missing, endangered person alert system, called Aubrey Alerts, named after Cherokee Nation citizen Aubrey Dameron, who has been missing since 2019.
The crisis of MMIP has already taken far too many of our beloved family members and tribal citizens. With increasing state and federal focus on this issue, we are hopeful that we can do a much better job of protecting and finding justice for those who are lost. I am proud that Cherokee Nation First Lady January Hoskin has made protecting women and children a top priority and she has been a tireless advocate on these issues.
As the legislative session advances, we will monitor and weigh in on other key issues. We expect to see attention on how we move forward after the U.S. Supreme Court, in the McGirt case, recognized that our tribal reservations in eastern Oklahoma were never disestablished. The U.S. Congress can act to allow additional state-tribal compacts for handling public safety and criminal jurisdiction on our reservation. In the meantime, we are investing in our tribal justice system and enhancing capacity and collaborating with federal prosecutors on major crimes. As we move forward, we will continue to build our criminal justice system and we will insist that the historic win in McGirt be protected.
Compacts already work well on issues including Indian child welfare, gaming, tobacco, hunting and fishing licenses, tribal car tags, and water rights. They are a proven model for how we can work together on our mutual interests without limiting tribal self-determination.
We always appreciate our friends in the Oklahoma Legislature who keep lines of communication and good-faith collaboration open, even when we disagree. We will not stand for any attempts to undermine our hard-won sovereign rights, but we will continue to do what Cherokee Nation is known to do -- which is to be good partners to our friends and neighbors across Oklahoma.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.