Poisoned relationship between Oklahoma tribes and Gov. Kevin Stitt doomed a forum to failure

Collaborator: The Frontier
Published: 07/18/2021, 11:53 PM

Written By: Clifton Adcock, Dylan Goforth

(TULSA, Okla.) The event was originally billed as a “community impact forum” about the McGirt Supreme Court decision. But almost everyone who attended was there in protest. The fallout has set Stitt and the tribes further apart.

Read this story on The Frontier here. 

Based on pre-written speeches prepared by mostly white panelists, a Tulsa forum on the landmark McGirt ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court was geared to a different audience than the one that showed up on Tuesday night. The crowd that did attend was mostly American Indian and mostly in favor of the high court’s McGirt ruling last year, which held that reservations for the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” were never disestablished by Congress and that much of the state is still Indian reservations.

Gov. Kevin Stitt was prepared to lead a panel of district attorneys and other officials from across the state about why they believed the McGirt decision was bad for Oklahomans, but a primarily American Indian audience heckled and jeered. About an hour after the panel started, Stitt, who along with Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler and several victim advocacy groups that organized the event, asked the panel a question from the audience about what accepting state laws would do to tribal sovereignty. No one on the stage responded. Stitt looked at the panel, then said his farewell into the microphone and exited out a back door with several staffers, cutting the event short by about an hour.

One of the major criticisms of Tuesday’s event was a lack of tribal representation on the panel, which included mostly lawyers, law enforcement from the Tulsa area, and district attorneys from counties that now touch Indian land. Representatives for Stitt’s office have said the event was intended to provide information to victims of crimes that are now out of the state’s reach to prosecute after the Supreme Court ruling. 

“Just look at how dishonest the governor was saying this,” said Tulsa attorney and Pawnee citizen Brett Chapman, who attended the panel. “He started asking these prosecutors and law enforcement a loaded question about property taxes. That shows what this whole thing is about. It’s scare tactics. It’s not about victims.”

Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill said in a statement on Tuesday that the event was a “one-sided political campaign” and that he would have “welcomed the opportunity” to attend the session “had an official invitation been extended.” 

Hours after the forum ended, the governor’s communications director Carly Atchison posted nine tweets to Twitter, in which she said the forum was “hijacked by fringe activists” who “decided their protesting and disruptive, disrespectful behavior was more important than victims getting connected to resources they need.”

The event had been publicly marketed as a “community impact forum,” but Stitt’s office said afterward that it was intended for victims of crime to get answers about McGirt’s impact on them. 

Emails Atchison provided to The Frontier show there was at least some effort by the governor’s office, which has butted heads with the tribes over the tribal gaming compact in recent years, to include some form of tribal representation on the panel. 

Atchison emailed Christopher Wilson, the acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, on June 3 asking for “good contacts to get in touch with the five chiefs? Could be their AGs too!”

Atchison got a response later that day with emails for Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill, Muscogee Nation Attorney General Roger Wiley and Debra Gee, the assistant attorney general for the Chickasaw Nation. Later that day, she sent them an email inviting them to the forum, which at that point had a date and time but not a location. 

“The event will feature victims, advocacy groups, district attorneys, local law enforcement, tribal leaders, U.S. attorneys, and representatives from our congressional delegation, as well as the Governor, to come together to help answer the questions we hear from those who have been affected by the McGirt decision: ‘Where do I go now? Who can I talk to? Who can help me?’” Atchison wrote. 

She said more details “and a formal invitation” would follow, “but out of respect for all of your busy schedules, we wanted to ensure your Chiefs have ample heads up to reserve this date/time on your calendar. Their participation will be key.”

Atchison invited “Chiefs” to the forum, according to the email, but of the invited group, only Cherokee Nation and the Muscogee Nation have chiefs. Chickasaw Nation’s top elected official, Bill Anoatubby, is a governor, not a chief. 

The governor’s office received no response from the tribes, they said. On June 25, about three weeks later, Ryan Leonard, who serves as special counsel for Native American affairs for Stitt, emailed Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill to ask if she “would have an interest in participating” in the forum. 

Then, a day before the event, Sally Van Schenck, a spokeswoman for Kunzweiler, emailed Sara Hill, Muscogee Nation Attorney General Roger Wiley and Debra Gee, the assistant attorney general for the Chickasaw Nation, to clear up “miscommunication” about the event.

“Sometimes things that are well-intentioned can still get messed up. I desperately wish that wasn’t the case here, but I fear that somewhere along the line things got wrinkled,” Van Schenck wrote. 

Van Schenck told the attorneys general she hoped to have “all the Chiefs” come to the forum. 

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could have one big forum and all the Chiefs came, and all the DA’s came and the feds came and everyone could talk about what their jurisdiction is and what services they provide so that victims could know where to go?” Van Schenck wrote in the email obtained by The Frontier. 

Schenck wrote in the email that she had seen news reports that the forum was intended to be anti-McGirt.

“That was never the intent. Not ever,” she said. She later asked the attorneys general if they would “please consider attending.” 

None of the three appeared at the forum. 

Most of the panelists stayed and spoke to attendees after the event’s abrupt end. But from a public relations perspective, the event never approached its intended purpose. During the meeting, well after it had gone off the rails, Stitt — a Cherokee citizen who governs the state with the third-highest American Indian population in the country — called the protestors “people from out of state.”

Sam Alexander, former speaker of the Muscogee National Council, also attended the event, and said while he does not condone shouting at speakers, he believes it was important for Stitt to see the protesters’ anger.

“What I saw tonight was the governor probably walking into an environment he never prepared himself for, and I suspect the gentlemen on the panel felt much the same way,” Alexander said. “My suspicion about this tonight was to generate fear mongering and then go to Congress and have Congress take care of this. I think they would have liked to have done that a long time ago. But I don’t think that will happen. The tribes are pretty sophisticated politically. They spend a lot of money. They need to pay attention to the Native American vote.”

A lot of bad blood remains from the gaming compact fight a few years ago, and the distrust between the two sides has only grown since then, Alexander said.

“His position right at the first was offensive to the tribes, his behavior,” Alexander said. “He doesn’t seem to understand the magnitude of the bad feelings he caused by stepping on the tribes’ toes right at first. If I were advising him, I would start off with a pretty big apology. He’s not going to get anywhere if he doesn’t do that.”

Muscogee Principal Chief Hill said in his statement that he believed Kunzweiler was “using platforms” such as Tuesday’s event to “spread fear rather than helpful information.” Hill said he scheduled a meeting with Kunzweiler in May to “discuss the inaccuracies” he believed Kunzweiler was spreading, but “left with the impression that Mr. Kunzweiler’s purpose was to disseminate his position only.” 

The Chickasaw Nation said in a statement that it had received the “save the date” email, but no follow-up formal invitation was sent.

“The Chickasaw Nation Office of Tribal Justice Administration received a preliminary save-the-date notice to the scheduled political event. No formal invitation was received, no one invited our participation in the program, in development of the program or participation in the panel,” the statement read. “Representatives from our Office of Government Relations and Strategic Partnerships will attend as we continue to work with our intergovernmental partners to maintain public safety. Chickasaw Nation executive, legislative and judicial departments have worked together to enhance our criminal code, expand our court system and reinforce our relationships with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to ensure we maintain law and order in the Chickasaw Nation.”

After the event, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. issued a statement saying the tribe has prioritized expanding and reinforcing its justice system to keep people within the reservation safe.

“While it is unfortunate that some of our political leaders are focused on flashy headlines — regardless of what is actually best for victims and regardless of what is actually backed by fact — we will continue our important work to cooperate with local, federal and state partners on real solutions,” the statement read. “The victims in the cases dismissed or retried as a result of the state of Oklahoma’s decades of acting outside its jurisdiction deserve our full and unwavering support — not to be used as a political tool.”


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