When Oklahoma Republican Governor Mary Fallin signed HB 2172 into law after the end of the 2011 legislative session, the 43-year-old Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission was effectively dissolved. In place of the commission, a single-position Native American Liaison was created to be a part of the Oklahoma Executive Branch, reporting to the governor. Although there have been steps to widen the field of applicants, the position at press time remains unfilled.
The original deadline to hire a liaison to Oklahoma’s 39 federally recognized tribes was December 1, 2011. According to the governor’s office, one of the issues in hiring was the requirement written into HB 2172 that called for a ¼ Indian blood quantum. This particular requirement “raised legal and policy questions,” according to a statement from Fallin’s office.
Although some of Oklahoma’s tribes still have a ¼ blood quantum requirement for membership, tribal membership requirements range from 1/8 blood quantum to being a descendant of a Dawes Roll ancestor and are set by the tribes themselves.
The end of this year’s legislative session helped to alleviate the problem with HB 2563, written by Paul Wesselhoft, R-District 54. Wesselhoft, the Oklahoma House of Representatives’ assistant majority whip, is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and serves his nation as a District 9 Legislator.
This bill, which Fallin signed into law on May 29 of this year, removed the ¼ blood quantum and changed the requirements so that the liaison only had to be on the rolls of a federally recognized tribe. Other language in the bill removed the liaison as the “governor’s designee to negotiate cooperative agreements with federally recognized tribal governments,” according to the May 29 release from Fallin. HB 2563 also extended Fallin’s hiring deadline to December 1, 2012.
Fallin’s statement also said that the bill would go into effect 90 days after the end of the legislative session, which ended on May 25. This would officially give the governor approximately three months to appoint a liaison after August 25.
“My administration has worked closely and will continue to work closely with Oklahoma’s tribes on a variety of issues as we work to develop policies that are beneficial to all Oklahomans,” Fallin said. “Oklahoma’s tribes make a unique and valuable contribution to Oklahoma’s economy and culture. I look forward to having the Native American liaison join our administration. I know it will further enhance the partnership and communication between the governor’s office and Oklahoma’s tribes.”
Queries made to Governor Fallin’s office as to when the Native American Liaison position would be filled were not answered by press time.
However, not everyone sees a liaison office as being a strong point of contact between the governor’s office and the state’s federally recognized tribal governments. Chuck Hoskin, D-District 6, served as a Cherokee Nation Tribal Council member before his election to the Oklahoma State House, where he is minority floor leader. When not in session, Hoskin works as Chief of Staff for Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker. This session, Hoskin wrote a stand-alone amendment to HB 2563, which would have elevated the Liaison to a cabinet-level position: an Oklahoma Secretary of Indian Affairs.
“I think [the Secretary of Indian Affairs position] lends certainly an air of importance showing that it’s a government-to-government relationship,” Hoskin said about the difference between the secretary and liaison offices. “It carries with it more authority when that position would be visiting with our tribes. A liaison position is really just a staffer position. I’m certainly not saying that’s not a good thing, it’s just not what many of the tribes in the state of Oklahoma believe it should be. That’s the difference.”
Hoskin’s amendment found a high degree of bipartisan support in the House of Representatives. However, the amendment did not have the needed support within the Oklahoma State Senate.
“On the Senate side, they stripped my amendment to elevate the position and passed the elimination of the blood quantum and sent it back to the House,” Hoskin said. “We were not able to restore the amendment that elevated it.”
Although Hoskin had supporters for his amendment, he said that he has no confirmed reasons why his amendment was removed.
“It would be pure conjecture on my part,” Hoskin said. “I just think that some of the Senators may have seen that as in the hands of the governor and possibly forcing the position on her. It’s not really forcing the position. If we create the position, then it’s up to her—whomever the governor is, her or him, whatever the situation is at the time—it’s up to that individual to appoint the person. We’re not trying to select the individual or any particular tribe, or anything like that. We’re just trying to create a position similar to the federal level, as the assistant secretary of the Interior. That would be a strong point of contact with the tribes and directly to the governor’s office.”
For the next legislative session, Hoskin said he plans on co-authoring a bill with Wesselhoft that would re-introduce the idea for the Oklahoma Secretary of Indian Affairs. Due to Oklahoma’s House of Representatives members being elected every two years, the writing of the bill would be pending winning re-election in November for both Hoskin and Wesselhoft.
“We have high hopes of obviously being able to get it out of the House,” said Hoskin. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to get it out of the Senate. I truly believe that Governor Fallin wants to work with the tribes. This would be a giant step forward to recognize our partnership between the governor and the numerous federally recognized tribes in this state.”