Conflict between Oklahoma governor and its tribes erupts into another lawsuit

OklahomaBusinessPoliticsCommunity GamingIndigenous
Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 08/05/2023, 7:35 PM
Edited: 08/05/2023, 7:36 PM

(MUSCOGEE NATION) Just when onlookers thought the heat between Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt and the interests of the state’s 39 tribal nations couldn’t get any hotter- BOOM. 

But it’s not just the tribes who have taken a stand against Stitt’s moves; the Legislature and the state’s Attorney General are now openly at odds with him at the highest level yet. 

The recent fiery turn of events occurred on Monday, when the governor sued House Speaker Charles McCall and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat.

His lawsuit followed the success of the House of Representatives’ final override needed to overturn Governor Stitt’s vetoes on tobacco and motor vehicle compacts

Tensions with the tribe over compacts began not long after Stitt was inaugurated. 

In 2019, Stitt launched a campaign pushing for higher percentages of gaming fees from the state’s tribes. This initiative was publicly launched in an op-ed written by Stitt and published in the Tulsa World.

Oklahoma’s American tribes, like all other tribes, are sovereign nations with their own governments.  

Tribal gaming compacts are authorized by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), a federal law passed in 1988 that permits tribes to conduct gaming on their reservations. Under IGRA, tribes must negotiate compacts with the state to operate casinos which require, amongst other conditions, a percentage of gaming revenue.  

Many tribal leaders said they were caught off guard by Stitt’s op-ed.  

The tribes operate over a hundred casinos in Oklahoma and have paid a revenue share between 4 and 6 percent with the state since 2004.  

Though not paying as much in revenue shares as other states operating casinos, tribal nations in Oklahoma have built hospitals, improved roads, funded first responders, and supported education with casino revenue, all of which has extended beyond their own citizenry.  

Stitt’s initiative soon extended to calls for increased revenue shares of other compacts such as hunting and fishing licenses, but pushback from the tribes, Legislature, and the AG haven’t deterred Stitt.

Instead of backing down, Stitt has doubled down on his mission to “not let eastern Oklahoma become a reservation”, from compact conflicts to jurisdictional disagreements.  

His mission appears to run askew of the Supreme Court’s 2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling that affirmed much of Eastern Oklahoma is in fact reservation land.  

Last week, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond said he was stepping in to "represent the interests of Oklahoma in a three-year-old lawsuit that has drained state resources in defense of unlawful gaming compacts orchestrated by Governor Kevin Stitt". 

With the Oklahoma Attorney General and the Legislature on the other side of these compact issues, who is left on Stitt’s?  

While Drummond has said Stitt’s compact lawsuits benefit only the elite law firms he hires, others like Former Oklahoma State Superintendent and 2022 Democratic Gubernatorial Nominee Joy Hofmeister point to state hires who have contributed to Stitt’s campaigns.   

Hofmeister’s campaign page still highlights the fact that Under Stitt, the state has awarded nearly $20 million in lucrative government contracts to some of Stitt’s biggest campaign donors and allies, as reported by The Oklahoman.  

Stitt maintains he is working in the interest of all 4 million Oklahomans, reiterated in a recent meeting request to tribes whose tobacco compacts are set to expire this year.

“I extend this offer in good faith and remain steadfast in my belief that we must find common ground to move our state forward,” the letters said.

In Oklahoma, 16 percent of the state population identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native in 2020. The state is second only to Alaska for highest population of American Indian or Alaskan Native people.  

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt was elected as the state’s 28th governor in 2018. 

Despite being a registered citizen of Cherokee Nation, his official website makes no mention of his Cherokee citizenry.  

His campaign was befallen with a typical level of controversy, from concerns Stitt was not very politically active ahead of his run for governor (outside of voting in presidential elections), to “dirty” campaigns over who supported Trump the most and how many of his own millions he contributed to his campaign for governor. 

But perhaps the most controversial Stitt headline was directly related to his heritage, when reports began to surface that his ancestors had paid to be put on the Cherokee rolls. 

Tribal relations may not have been a prioritized campaign issue covered by local media during Stitt’s first run for governor, but it is clear these issues now have a more prevalent position in the political and news cycles and will continue to do so moving forward. 


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