Tribal-state collaboration makes us stronger
In my years of service to the Cherokee Nation, I have seen how powerful it can be when our tribal nation and the state of Oklahoma maintain a stable and positive partnership. The Cherokee Nation’s economic impact in our state – almost $2.2 billion – is rooted in our commitment to investing in Oklahoma communities, big and small. The Cherokee Nation will never outsource jobs or threaten to pull up stakes when the going gets tough. We remain the best friend that the state of Oklahoma has ever had.
To make sure that friendship remains strong and mutually beneficial, we pay close attention to what is happening in the Oklahoma Legislature, and we advocate for legislation that will benefit our tribal nation, the state, and Cherokee communities. In the current state legislative session, which recently kicked off at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City, we are especially focused on bills that support Cherokee students in our public schools.
More than a decade ago, tribal nations and Oklahoma took steps to improve collaboration on the education of American Indian students by creating the Oklahoma Advisory Council on Indian Education (OACIE). The council includes state officials and educators along with representatives from Cherokee Nation and other tribal governments. This advisory council has been doing good work since 2010, but it expires in July of 2020 unless renewed by the Legislature.
The need for this advisory council is still great. Nearly one in five students in Oklahoma Public Schools is Native American. These students have diverse backgrounds, needs, and tribal affiliations. Reaching all those students, while also leveraging all available state, federal, tribal and community resources, is a complex task. The OACIE helps by analyzing data on education needs and outcomes for Native American students and makes recommendations to the State Department of Education. That is why we support legislation to renew the OACIE for the next decade.
Another issue we are working on is a fix to help schools better understand the tribal citizens served in their districts. Under current law, Oklahoma public schools track how many of their students are Native American, but they are unable to track tribal affiliation of these students.
At Cherokee Nation, we do keep track of this data and use it to distribute nearly $6 million annually to public schools that serve Cherokee students within our jurisdiction in northeast Oklahoma. However, other tribes and the school districts themselves may not have that capacity, limiting their ability to tailor cultural and educational materials to the specific backgrounds of their students. By not tracking tribal affiliation with accuracy, schools may also be missing critical opportunities for federal funding that would benefit Indian students.
In this legislative session, we can address the problem by allowing the Oklahoma State Department of Education to collect tribal affiliation data for enrolled students in Oklahoma Public Schools. We are working with other sovereign tribal governments, Oklahoma education officials and lawmakers to make this happen.
Additionally, we will monitor and weigh in on other key issues, including bringing home our federal tax dollars to expand health care access, ending the troubling trend of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and making sure that our renewed gaming compacts continue to be a win-win for tribes and the state.
We always appreciate our friends in the Oklahoma Legislature for keeping lines of communication and good-faith collaboration open, even when we disagree. I look forward to another productive year of tribal-state collaboration to improve the place we all call home.