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CN looks to cut tag funding to schools that hinder cultural practices

TAHLEQUAH – The Tribal Council’s Rules Committee unanimously approved an amendment to the Cherokee Nation’s motor vehicle licensing code to allow the tribe to withhold car tag funding to schools that prevent Cherokee students from observing cultural practices such as wearing eagle feathers at graduation.

“This language is added to address those situations where we have had schools either try to make a student cut their hair or not allow them to wear eagle feathers, not allow them to wear their Cherokee stole,” Deputy Attorney General Chrissi Nimmo said at the Oct. 31 meeting. “We can’t take money away once we give it to them. But what we can tell them is if you don’t fix this policy within your school, then next year you’re not going to get this money because you’re not allowing Cherokee students to exercise their cultural and religious practices.”

The CN annually disburses to schools within its jurisdiction 38% of revenue generated from motor vehicle tag sales. Schools receive money based on the number of CN citizens enrolled, but the tribe does not categorize the funding, and districts can use funds to benefit all students.

This year, the CN disbursed a record $5.7 million to 108 schools. Since 2002, schools have received a total of $56.3 million in tag revenue.

Councilors also unanimously passed a proposal to lift a restriction on 5% earmarked for the categories of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, also known as STEM.

“This is to allow the 5% set aside to be used for STEM and/or Cherokee language, cultural history classes, as well as truancy programs,” Nimmo said. “They don’t have to have any one of those, but that money can now be broken up.”

Both changes were expected to be on the Nov. 12 Tribal Council agenda.

“There are probably a lot of other funding sources available for STEM education,” Tribal Councilor Janees Taylor said. “Probably every one of us has schools that say they would like to offer some type of culture but there’s no funding for it. This is a way they can take the STEM monies that are restricted and use ours that are a little bit freer for the cultural classes.”

Gaming compact, UKB updates

Nimmo also told councilors that the attorney general’s office accompanied Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. to a recent gaming compact-related meeting with state officials and other tribes.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, a CN citizen, has asked to renegotiate terms of the state’s 15-year-old gaming compacts that he contends expire Jan. 1. The CN and more than two dozen other tribal nations with gaming compacts argue the agreements automatically renew. They met Oct. 28 with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, she said.

“We listened to the state’s presentation/proposal, and tribal leadership is discussing next steps,” Nimmo said. “It’s an ongoing issue, so we’re working on it.”

According to the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, tribal governments have paid the state $1.123 billion in exclusivity fees since 2006.

Nimmo also told legislators that the CN filed a petition for rehearing related to the United Keetoowah Band’s recent court victory to place 76 acres of land in trust.

“They will respond to that,” she said, “and then the court will decide whether or not they’re going to rehear it.”

On Sept. 5, the U.S. Court of Appeals 10th Circuit vacated a 2017 injunction that prevented the 76 acres from being placed in trust in the case of United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians v. the Cherokee Nation.

In 2000, the UKB purchased the undeveloped land, which lies within the CN’s jurisdictional boundaries, for its tribal and culture center in Tahlequah. Four years later, the UKB submitted an application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to place the land in trust, but it wasn’t until 2011 that it was approved.

“The (Cherokee) Nation sued the Department of the Interior and BIA officials (in 2014), with the UKB intervening as defendants, challenging the BIA’s decision on several fronts,” court documents state. “The district court found in favor of the Nation, determining that the BIA’s decision to take the subject parcel into trust was ‘arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and otherwise not in accordance with the law.’”

The CN’s complaint requested the court declare the UKB was not a “successor in interest” to the CN’s former reservation or treaty territory and that the Nation’s consent was required for taking land into trust within the tribe’s boundaries.

More voters noted

Election Commission Administrator Marcus Fears told the committee that the latest review of registered voters showed 42,672 in-district and 31,972 at-large for a total of 74,644. A year ago there were approximately 71,319 registered voters.

During the June 1 general election, there were 72,781, according to the EC. A total of 13,870 CN citizens cast ballots for a 19.06 percent turnout.

Fish advisory prompts discussion

During the Oct. 31 Public Health Subcommittee meeting, Tribal Councilor Mary Baker Shaw said, “we are really failing on this one” when told by Wayne Isaacs and Billy Hix of the Natural Resources Office that the Nation had not actively notified CN citizens of the mercury levels in mature largemouth black bass taken from Stilwell City Lake.

The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality recently announced a lowest-level advisory for the lake after an above-normal level of mercury was detected in a single largemouth black bass. The ODEQ advised no more than two meals a month of Stilwell City Lake black bass, longer than 17 inches, for children younger than 15 and women who are nursing, pregnant or of child-bearing age. The advisory does not apply to males 15 and older or women not of child-bearing age. The ODEQ issues the advisory if 0.5 to 1 milligram of mercury is found in fish per kilogram.

“Unless they Google (ODEQ) they aren’t going to know, are they,” Baker Shaw asked.

“Probably not, ma’am,” Hix replied.

Isaacs said the CN conducted mercury testing in the lake in 2016-18 and did not find mercury at any level that would cause concern or trigger an advisory. He added that the ODEQ advisory suggested “a minimal level of concern” and that the officer noticed that the sample size of fish was small.

Hix said the ODEQ checked only five black crappie, five channel catfish and five largemouth black bass from the lake. An elevated level of mercury was only detected in the largest bass. Isaacs said a 17-inch bass is probably at least 4 to 5 years old, and the mercury could be an accumulation.

“There was no mercury found in the crappie and catfish, so no advisory was placed on those,” Hix said. “An advisory was only placed on the largest black bass.”

Hix said the office would monitor the mercury concentrations, including any possible followup sampling by ODEQ, and that the Nation could itself assist with further mercury testing.

Appointments recommended

The Rules Committee also voted unanimously in favor of appointing Shawna Baker to the CN Gaming Commission. It also reappointed John Sparks to the CNGC and Roberta Gibson to the Sequoyah High School board of education.

Legislators, by a 10-6 vote, also approved Kristy Sturgill, marketing director for Mental Health Association Oklahoma, to the Cherokee Phoenix editorial board.

“I hope to serve you all very well in this role on the editorial board,” she said. “I know the decision was really hard today.”

Sturgill previously produced content for The Edmond Sun and Claremore Daily Progress. She was also editor of the Oral Roberts University newspaper The Oracle.

Also, former CNGC commissioner Janice Walters-Purcell was introduced as the executive director of gaming, a new position added in the latest tribal budget. Hoskin said it was the right move because “the gaming operation has grown exponentially.”

“I think organizationally we have to grow and keep up with the size and complexity of our gaming regulations,” he said. “So it does make sense that this department, on par with other departments, would have an executive director level. It’s the reason that in the budget we presented to this council that was passed unanimously, we included funding for this new position.”

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