Sovereignty is a hot-button issue as Republicans compete in a congressional district mostly on tribal land

Collaborator: The Frontier
Published: 06/21/2022, 4:50 PM

(OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.) With 13 Republicans running for an open congressional seat that covers mostly native land, some District 2 candidates say they support added federal funding for tribal law enforcement, while others are calling to dismantle reservations. 

Read this story on The Frontier here.

Whoever wins the seat will represent Oklahoma tribes in Congress and will have to work closely with tribal governments. The relationship is more critical than ever after the 2020 McGirt U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which cut into the state’s power to prosecute many serious crimes on tribal land in Oklahoma. 

Current District 2 Congressman, Markwayne Mullin, who is Cherokee, has been supportive of tribal sovereignty. In January, he joined with three other members of Oklahoma’s delegation to ask the House Appropriations Committee for $308 million in funding for to help tribes enforce the law and prosecute crimes after the court ruling.  

Mullin said at an Oklahoma Press Association event earlier this month that he believes Oklahoma should respect the sovereignty of the tribes, but continued infighting between the state government and tribes had led to the real issues of McGirt being overlooked.

“At the end of the day in my district everybody’s losing because the state isn’t able to talk to the tribes,” he said. 

Some running to replace Mullin also say they support tribal sovereignty, while others have called to overturn the McGirt decision and dismantle Indian reservations. 

The Frontier sent a list of questions about the McGirt decision to each of the 13 Republican candidates in the race, but only six responded. The Frontier also reached out to the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Tribes and the Quapaw Nation for comment but did not get a response. 

On Thursday, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in an interview with the Cherokee Phoenix that it “is a concern” if candidates aren’t talking about protecting tribal sovereignty and it “is a greater concern” if they oppose it. 

Back in March the Inter-Tribal Council released a statement saying that any “candidates who seek to restrict our rights and disestablish our reservations” after the Supreme Court reaffirmed their existence “do not deserve to represent our state.”

While some candidates share Mullin’s beliefs surrounding the McGirt decision, others have taken a hardline stance against the tribes, starkly opposing tribal sovereignty and believe McGirt was wrongly decided.

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John Bennett, the former chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party who is now running for District 2, in April called for Congress to “dis-establish” the Tribes and said it would be one of his main priorities if elected. 

“The casino bosses and corrupt Tribal governments are the ones benefiting from the McGirt ruling,” Bennett said in a video posted to his YouTube. “Tribal and non-Tribal members are the ones that are actually left hanging out to dry.”

Wes Nofire, a member of the Cherokee Nation Council who is running for the District 2 seat, said he does not believe continued funding for federal law enforcement in Eastern Oklahoma is a “long-term solution.”

“We must get the tribes and the state back to the negotiating table to find that solution,” he said. “Oklahomans should be policing Oklahomans, not the feds. I do believe there is a path forward.” 

At a debate in McAlester on Monday, Nofire called the Cherokee Nation a “liberal administration” and said the McGirt decision has weakened the state’s ability to enforce laws on tribal land, including a near total ban on abortion Gov. Kevin Stitt signed in May. 

“The state’s trying to take measures to pursue a pro-life agenda, which I’m very proud of,” Nofire said. “However, the McGirt decision would create a criminal sanctuary by allowing abortion clinics to be set up right here on now the rest of the Indian Reservation.”

In late May, Nofire said in a radio interview that he has the ability to go to Congress and “handle what I think is the biggest threat to Oklahomans today, and that’s the McGirt decision.” 

Republican candidate Johnny Teehee, who is chief of police in Muskogee and a Cherokee Nation citizen, said he is a “firm believer” in tribal sovereignty. 

“It is the law of the land and was a promise made during the forced migration of my ancestors to Oklahoma,” he said. 

Teehee said he plans on continuing the work of Oklahoma’s current congressional delegation and “ask for more resources for law enforcement in Oklahoma” and also advocate for “resources to help those who are victims of these crimes.”

Guy Barker, secretary-treasurer of the Quapaw Nation, who is running for District 2 describes himself as “unapologetically pro-sovereignty” but also “pro-public safety and pro-tough on crime.” 

“I favor more federal funding for all law enforcement, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and tribal police or prosecutors,” Barker said.

State Rep. Avery Frix, R-Muskogee, who is also running for the open congressional seat, is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation and said that he believes “tribal sovereignty is positive for Oklahoma.” 

If elected, Frix plans on joining the other members of Oklahoma’s delegation in supporting more federal funding to “support an increase in law enforcement and federal judges in Eastern Oklahoma.”

“I absolutely believe we can come together and find a great solution,” Frix said. “In Oklahoma, it’s not ‘us versus them.’ Native Americans and non-Native Americans are all Oklahomans. … We must get back to the table. As a member of Congress — and a Native American — I will work hard to find solutions that make life better for eastern Oklahomans.”

State Rep. Dustin Roberts, R-Durant, is also running for the open congressional seat and said he believes the U.S. Supreme Court made the “correct” decision when it ruled that Congress “never removed Oklahoma’s reservation status” and that because of this “leaders of our State need to work with the tribes as we have done since statehood.”

Candidate State Sen. Marty Quinn, R-Claremore, was vague in his responses to The Frontier. Quinn said he has “faith in both the tribal and the non tribal members” and believes “there’s still the opportunity for both sides to sit down and come to an agreement that is helpful.”

“If I’m fortunate enough to go to D.C., those will be things that I’d want to make sure that we address to have the best situation possible for all the citizens,” Quinn said.

Josh Brecheen, Chris Schiller, Clint Johnson, Rhonda Hopkins, David Derby and Pamela Gordon did not respond to requests for comment.


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