DURANT, Okla. — A recurring theme emerged as leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes explored the future — the necessity of expanding economic development.
The Five Civilized Tribes Inter-Tribal Council met for two days in Durant, the stated objective to improve services for their people. With expected cuts to federal budgets, the tribal representatives focused on how to continue programs providing assistance, health benefits, education and cultural awareness.
“The Inter-Tribal Council is one of the oldest organizations in Indian Country,” said Choctaw Nation Chief Gregory E. Pyle. “The unified effort of members of the council and its delegates is important in our communication on a state and federal level.”
A full day of committee discussions on Thursday opened the third quarterly meeting of the Inter-Tribal Council since it reconvened in June 2012. Staff from the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole and Muscogee-Creek Nations formed work groups to share information and ideas on boosting tourism, housing, social services, communication technology, cultural preservation, transportation and more.
Pyle welcomed nearly 200 in attendance Friday at the council’s general session in the Choctaw Resort’s conference area. He highlighted the Choctaw Nation’s top priorities — education, health and jobs. The expansion of tribal business, he said, is vital to the success of enhancing the lives of tribal members. The impact is good for Oklahoma as well, providing much-needed jobs and generating positive economic activity.
Seminole Nation Chief Leonard Harjo, who has worked at the executive level for over 20 years, commented on the growth and progress among the five tribes, commending his peers for the strides that have been made carrying their people forward.
“We are well on the way to achieving our dreams,” he said of the Seminole Nation. “We opened the second expansion phase of our Seminole language immersion school two weeks ago. We will be able to have 18 children in the full immersion environment five days a week.”
Funding is available to provide classrooms and develop curriculum through third grade, and the next phase will expand the immersion school through the sixth grade. Their goal is to eventually have a full immersion school available for pre-K through 12th grade.
“I have challenged our language program to create the opportunity for our tribal youth to be bilingual within 20 years,” Harjo said.
The commercial efforts of the tribes are designed to make this possible, especially with the looming issues of probable federal funding cuts due to the fiscal cliff.
“Tribes are able to step up and help the federal government with the funding process,” explained Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby. By making choices and prioritizing, the tribes can still do what is needed because of the income from their businesses, he said.
Anoatubby said he remembers what it used to be like and is thankful for where the tribes are today. When the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 was implemented, a lot of changes took place in Indian Country.
“Today, we can say self-determination works, self-governance works,” he said.
Expanding tourism is a fast-growing solution to generating economic growth. Each tribal leader talked about the progress in Oklahoma, listing new ventures under way, including unique enterprises such as the Chickasaw Nation’s Welcome Center at the intersection of Interstate 35 and Highway 7. The Chickasaws’ Bedré Chocolate factory will be relocated to the new center, considered a “gateway for travelers.”
“When our tribes are successful, Oklahoma is successful,” said Muscogee-Creek Chief George Tiger, who is currently serving as chairman of the Inter-Tribal Council’s executive committee. The Muscogee-Creek Nation is following a new path in developing a Department of Energy and establishing a utility company. Tiger said small business is also a driving force in Indian Country and has partnered with Oklahoma Small Business Development Center to assist tribal citizens with starting a business.
He introduced U.S. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn who reiterated the importance of increasing tribal land and employment. Washburn told the group that around 197,000 acres had been restored to tribes in trust status last year. “We consider restoring the land to tribal homelands one of our great successes,” Washburn said. “We want to keep that success going forward.”
The tribes are striving to maintain the upward momentum – a force fueling the prosperity of communities throughout the state.
Among the resolutions approved by the Inter-Tribal Council were:
• Res. 13-01 – establishing a Standing Committee of Social Services to address issues concerning the social and economic well-being of Indian communities.
• Res. 13-02 – in support of the position of the Indian Child Welfare Act and of the position of the Cherokee Nation and Cherokee Nation citizens concerning the case of Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl, et al.
• Res. 13-03 – supporting and urging the Oklahoma Supreme Court and the Oklahoma Board of Bar Examiners work together with the Oklahoma Bar Association Indian Law Section to include Indian law principles and subject matter on the Oklahoma Bar Exam.
• Res. 13-04 – to establish a Standing Enrollment Committee, recognizing that tribal enrollment is the baseline for the Nations to exercise sovereignty, perform commerce-related activities, preserve and protect culturally significant sites; and the vital role of enrollment services and their contributions to each tribe’s sovereignty and existence.
• Res. 13-05 – establishing a standing committee who addresses regulations and issues pertaining to the field of environmental protection.
• Res. 13-06 – establishing a Standing Committee of Health to address health-related policies and programs promoting the common welfare of American Indians.
• Res. 13-07 – supporting negotiated rule making of the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA).
• Res. 13-08 – establishing a Standing Realty Trust Services Committee.
• Res. 13-09 – recommending and addressing the re-authorization of the Workforce Investment Act.
• Res. 13-10 – to continue financial support for the annual To Bridge a Gap Conference during which the U.S. Forest Service, tribal governments and federal agencies and offices gather to discuss issues relevant to historic preservation and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
• Res. 13-11 – supporting the position of the Cherokee Nation in opposition to the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit’s application of ex parte Young to tribal sovereignty.
The Cherokee Nation is scheduled to host the next quarterly meeting of the Inter-Tribal Council in April.