George Tiger’s mettle was tested within two months of his election as principal chief of the Muscogee Creek Nation.
Kialegee Tribal Town, a member of the Muscogee Creek Confederacy, had begun clearing land to prepare for construction of the Red Clay Casino, across the street from the Broken Arrow campus of Tulsa Tech. Kialegee officials said they were pursuing their right of economic development for the benefit of their 439 citizens.
It was a complicated project – proposed outside Kialegee Tribal Town, on land leased from a Muscogee Creek family. Tiger opposed the project, saying the site was within Muscogee Creek jurisdiction and that no permit applications had been filed. But he vetoed the National Council’s resolution opposing the casino project, saying he wanted to discuss the project with Kialegee officials. It was an issue of jurisdiction, not Nation vs. Tribal Town, he said.
“I am sensitive to the plight of all our communities and our remaining traditional towns who seek to improve the lives of our people through the advancement of plans for economic development,” Tiger said at a press conference.
Tiger believes a leader can be firm yet seek middle ground, and he wants to take that leadership style to the presidency of the National Congress of American Indians.
Tiger is one of four announced candidates for president of NCAI. The others: Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Tribe; Joe Garcia, Ohkay Owingeh; and Juana Majel-Dixon, Pauma Band of Luiseno Indians. The election will take place during NCAI’s 70th annual Convention & Marketplace October 13-18 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
NCAI’s president serves a two-year term and is not salaried. NCAI has a staff of 33.
Tiger was interviewed for this story the day after Dusten Brown, an Oklahoma Cherokee man, relinquished custody of his 4-year-old daughter to her adoptive parents in accordance with a South Carolina court order. Earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Indian Child Welfare Act didn’t apply in the case. Tiger believes the case presages sovereignty battles to come.
“We need to be unified” on all issues involving sovereignty, he said. Many decision-makers in the U.S. don’t understand what sovereignty is – that Native American governments have the inherent right to make decisions regarding their peoples and lands.
“As Indian governments, we bring a lot to the table,” he said. “Our economies pump a lot of money into [neighboring] governments, yet they fail to see us as working, viable nations. We’re here.”
How would he make a difference? “My ability to work as a communicator,” he said. “I have that background – I’ve testified before Senate committees and met with members of Congress. Communication has to be an important part of what we do.”
Tiger also touts a record in economic development, a priority throughout Native America.
Muscogee Creek Nation is an economic powerhouse, contributing to the $10.8 billion economic impact on Oklahoma by the state’s 38 indigenous nations. Muscogee Creek had a budget of more than $177 million in 2012, with more than 2,400 employees.
In 2012, the Nation purchased Riverwalk Crossing, a commercial and recreational area on the Arkansas River in Jenks; and Okmulgee Country Club. In 2013, the Nation acquired Okmulgee Memorial Hospital and the George Nigh Rehabilitation Center. With those acquisitions, Muscogee Creek’s government will have a 2014 operating budget of $260 million, Tiger said.
The Nation’s other enterprises include construction, technology and staffing services; a document imaging company; travel plazas; and 11 casino/event centers. The Nation founded the College of the Muscogee Nation in 2004.
“We’ve been able to accomplish some great things in terms of economic development because we have a great team, a strong cabinet and a good working rapport with our legislature, both tribal and state,” he said.
Tiger served on the Muscogee Creek National Council for 14 years, including a term as speaker from 2006-07. During his campaign for principal chief, he was endorsed by his primary election opponents, who wrote in an ad that he is “someone that understands the needs of our citizens; speaks our language, respects our culture, traditions and values; [and] has worked effectively with other governments and businesses.”
Prior to his career in government, he was the original host of Native America Calling, hosted Inside Native America on Tulsa’s KOTV Channel 6, and worked as sports director of KOKL-AM in Okmulgee. “I still dabble in sports announcing for the local high school team,” he said.
Tiger cites as his role models the late Wendell Chino, longtime president of the Mescalero Apache Nation, who led his Nation’s economic revival which resulted in the development of a ski resort, the Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort & Casino, schools, a hospital and a health center; and Ernie Stevens Sr., the Oneida educator, historian and economic development leader.
In his 2013 State of the Nation, Tiger spoke of what can be accomplished when people work in solidarity for the common good.
"Solidarity does not mean that we will all have the same political values, daily struggles or even the same religious views. However, it does mean we will be committed and work toward a brighter future for our nation and people because we live on common ground and we are all committed in solidarity to the common good."
Now, on the eve of the NCAI election, Tiger’s mettle is again being tested. A former aide alleges they had an affair, and is suing him for physical and emotional abuse. Tiger denies the charges, calling the lawsuit “ridiculous,” but said he could not comment further on the case.
Indian Country Today Media Network will profile each of the four candidates campaigning for the NCAI president’s seat. Juana Majel-Dixon will follow.