Oklahoma’s tribes unite against a common foe: Their Cherokee governor

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s demands for more money from Indian casinos have sparked a bitter feud with economically powerful tribes — including his own.

This article was reported in collaboration with The New York Times.

When Kevin Stitt campaigned for governor of Oklahoma, he said his identity as a citizen of Cherokee Nation gave him “firsthand” knowledge of the clout tribal nations wield in the state. But since his victory in November 2018, tribes have been teaching Mr. Stitt lessons in the politics of Indian Country.

In a rare act of coalescence, nearly all of Oklahoma’s 39 tribal nations are united against the governor. Soon after taking office, Mr. Stitt proposed a sharp hike in the fees that the tribes pay to operate their 130 lucrative casinos, unleashing fierce discussions across the state about identity, economic power and tribal sovereignty.

“He has a total ignorance of Indian Country,” Rocky Barrett, chairman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a tribal councilor for the past 40 years, said of Mr. Stitt, the first tribal citizen to become governor of Oklahoma since the 1950s.

Other tribal leaders have been just as pointed. “I don’t think he can spell sovereignty,” said John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Nation.


Rocky Barrett, Chairman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, sits for a portrait. Barrett is among the Oklahoma tribal leaders speaking out against Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt's call to renegotiate tribal gaming compacts.
Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times
On a deeper level, many tribal leaders said they felt betrayed by the governor, who has said in media reports that he understands “what a tremendous benefit the tribes have been” to Oklahoma, a state whose origins are rooted in the genocide and forced relocation of Indigenous people and the encouragement of white settlement, which threatened the sovereignty of tribal nations.

Several of Mr. Stitt’s allies have turned against him, and some Cherokees have begun collecting signatures in a movement aimed at pressuring the Cherokee Nation to revoke his citizenship.

Pointing to the growing economic sway of tribal nations in Oklahoma’s economy, money is at the heart of this dispute. The tribes paid $148 million in fees from casino operations to the state last year, 88% of which was earmarked for Oklahoma’s public schools, which rank among the most underfunded in the country.

On a deeper level, many tribal leaders said they felt betrayed by the governor, who has said in media reports that he understands “what a tremendous benefit the tribes have been” to Oklahoma.

Mr. Stitt, a Tulsa mortgage banker and conservative Republican, proposed that the tribes pay a much higher revenue rate to Oklahoma to operate their casinos, a move that tribal leaders have seen as an aggressive approach and a continuation of generations of broken agreements between the state and tribal governments.

The gaming agreements between the tribes and the state were set to expire on Jan. 1. Mr. Stitt had proposed a new contract to begin this year that would bring the revenue rate more in line with what casino operators pay in Arizona and Nevada. He warned that casinos would be operating illegally if a new agreement wasn’t signed, but operators said they believed the compact would automatically renew if new agreements were not made. Three tribes filed a federal lawsuit in December seeking clarity.

The 15-year compacts were signed in 2004. Because gaming was new to Oklahoma at the time, Mr. Stitt wrote in an op-ed for The Tulsa World newspaper, the tribes agreed to pay between 4% and 6% of their revenues for the exclusive right to operate in the state. He compared those rates with state-tribal compacts elsewhere in the country with fees between 20% and 25%.

A billboard for the Ioway Casino owned by the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma seen near downtown Stroud, Oklahoma. Last year, Oklahoma tribes paid $148 million in fees from casino operations to the state, the majority going to the public schools system.
Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

Mr. Stitt declined several requests for interviews, and instead pointed to the op-ed, where he said he was governing “in the best interest of all 4 million Oklahomans,” for his reasoning behind the proposed increases. In a statement, Mr. Stitt added, “the door is open, and remains open” for negotiating a way to move forward.

The feud has spilled into everyday life for Oklahomans of many backgrounds who rely on casino proceeds to fund roads, public transportation, hospitals and schools. State officials have also privately complained that the issue has distracted the governor and slowed down unrelated state business, while prominent Republican allies have either publicly broken with Mr. Stitt or distanced themselves from him over the feud.

In an outgrowth of the dispute, several citizens of Mr. Stitt’s own tribe have voiced doubts about the governor’s family background, raising questions as to whether the governor has any Cherokee ancestry at all.

According to tribal membership documents from 1900 reviewed by The New York Times and High Country News, Cherokee Nation lawyers fought the tribal enrollment of Mr. Stitt’s ancestor, Francis Dawson, who they claimed pretended to be a Cherokee and bribed Cherokee commissioners.

Aside from Francis Dawson, Mr. Stitt has no documented Cherokee ancestry, according to David Cornsilk, a genealogist who works for the Cherokee Nation but did not speak on its behalf. The lawyer who assisted the Dawsons was later convicted and imprisoned for fraud. When the Cherokee Nation’s lawyers tried to remove the Dawsons from the tribe’s membership rolls, American officials overruled them.

Cherokee Nation citizenship is not based on race, and Mr. Stitt is a citizen under the tribe’s law. When asked about the research of genealogists in connection to his family’s history, Mr. Stitt called the findings “unsubstantiated slander.”

As Indian gaming expands across the United States, government officials and tribal leaders elsewhere are closely following the case in Oklahoma as they review their own gaming compacts. In Arizona, for instance, Republican leaders are pressuring tribes to resolve outstanding water disputes with the state before renegotiating gaming agreements.

Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. poses for a portrait with tribal members during an MLK Day celebration at at a community center in Muskogee, Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation is responsible for millions of dollars of infrastructure in the state.
Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation is responsible for millions of dollars of public services, including police, schools and one of the largest tribal hospitals in the country. Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said Mr. Stitt’s rhetoric suggests he doesn’t appreciate the economic and logistical pressure tribal governments like his are alleviating on “a state that has bounced from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis for the last decade.”

“I’ve never heard of a governor in this modern era treat an industry this way, make those sorts of threats, let alone a governor who campaigned on issues of private sector growth and limited government,” Mr. Hoskin said. “That’s breathtaking to me.”

Largely by using casino revenues, tribal nations in Oklahoma have built some of the most sophisticated hospitals across Indian Country — a federal designation that refers to land under tribal jurisdiction, and which comprises about half the state — providing free health care to wide swaths of a state that has one of the highest rates of uninsured people. Tribes also provide firefighters, paramedics and police officers to rural communities that otherwise could not support them on their own.

“It’s less food on our tables if our gaming revenue gets hit,” said Channa Tiger, 50, a manager of the food pantry operated by the Sac and Fox Nation in the town of Stroud. “I don’t get why a Cherokee governor is trying to strong-arm Native American people in this state.”

Situated among the rolling hills east of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, the two small casinos operated by the Sac and Fox allow the pantry to provide free food, including bison meat, blue cornmeal and wild rice. The tribe also uses casino revenue to make annual cash payments of about $1,000 to each of its more than 4,000 members.

A woman checks out at the food pantry in Stroud, Oklahoma. The pantry is supported by gaming proceeds from the Sac and Fox Nation's two casinos.
Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

In Anadarko, a small town in western Oklahoma that is home to seven tribal nations and about a half-dozen casinos, Kenneth Corn, the city manager, said no one else is rushing to invest in his community’s roads and schools or provide its residents with hundreds of jobs. He said Mr. Stitt was forcing officials like himself to choose sides.

“At this point, a lot of us are choosing the tribal nations because we can’t exist without their support and investments,” said Mr. Corn, who is not a citizen of any tribe.

“At this point, a lot of us are choosing the tribal nations because we can’t exist without their support and investments.”

Many tribal leaders, like Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton, said they initially welcomed the election of a fellow tribal citizen to the governor’s office. But now, he said, he feels like that potential has been squandered.

“Until this gaming compact came along, I thought the relationship was extremely good,” said Mr. Batton, who leads the third-largest tribal nation in the country with about 220,000 citizens. “This has almost severed the relationship.”

Mellor Willie, a founder of 7Gen Leaders, a “super PAC” formed in Washington to bolster emerging Indigenous political leaders, said that Mr. Stitt had shown a “bad example of handling tribal consultations.”

Tribal leaders complained that Mr. Stitt did not personally reach out to them before publishing his plans in the op-ed. They said he left a series of voice mail messages in the days leading up to the publication, and in the case of his own tribe, the largest in the country with about 330,000 citizens, he mailed a letter to the wrong address.

In the hallway of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Health Services - West Clinic in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Chief Medical Officer G. Adam Vascellaro, DO and Crystal Marcum, MSN APRN, FNP-C consult. The facility is partially funded by gaming proceeds the tribe receives from its casinos.
Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

Tribal leaders point to both as examples of Mr. Stitt being out of touch with Indigenous communities, and said he has admitted to not knowing how to pronounce the name of another band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, the United Keetoowahs (pronounced kuh-too-uh) and mistakenly said his own tribe has only about 130,000 citizens.

Fifteen years ago, Oklahoma’s tribal gaming industry didn’t exist. Now the state has more than 130 casinos that employ tens of thousands of people, making the tribes the state’s third-largest employer.

The gaming compact agreed to in 2004 required tribes to give to the state between 6 and 13% of their casino revenue, depending on the type of game. It also subsidized horse racing, a declining industry, by allowing racing tracks to operate casino gaming.

“The State made several formal offers over the past eight months to demonstrate that the door is open, and remains open, for discussing ways the State and all of Oklahoma’s Sovereign tribes can move forward together to address a compact that expired,” Mr. Stitt said in a brief statement to The Times and High Country News.

The dispute boiled over on New Year’s Eve when three of the largest tribes in the country, the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw, sued Mr. Stitt. Last week, an Oklahoma City federal judge ordered both sides to enter into mediation.

Before the lawsuit was filed, Mr. Stitt hired a powerful Washington, D.C., law firm, Perkins Coie, to fight the tribes, then reversed that move after fellow Republicans complained that the firm had represented the Democratic National Committee.

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation's Grand Hotel & Casino in Shawnee, Oklahoma. 130 casinos employ nearly 28,000 people, making them Oklahoma's third-largest employer.
Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

Aside from tarnishing existing relationships between the state and tribes — involving everything from hunting and fishing license agreements to vaccination programs — the dispute also threatens Mr. Stitt’s political future, as tribes have mounted a well-funded advertising campaign against him.

And despite Mr. Stitt’s own conservative credentials, fellow Republicans have been isolating him as the feud simmers. His attorney general withdrew from the legal portion of the dispute, the speaker of Oklahoma’s House of Representatives recently told reporters the tribes are correct, and former Gov. Frank Keating, a Republican, has appeared in television ads supporting the tribes.

Regardless of tribal affiliation, many said they don’t understand why a Cherokee governor would try to squeeze money from tribal nations instead of pressuring other pillars of Oklahoma’s economy.

Lisa Billy, a former Republican lawmaker and a member of the Chickasaw Nation, abruptly resigned in December as Mr. Stitt’s secretary of Native American affairs, accusing the governor of dismissing her advice and “breaking faith” with Oklahoma’s tribes.

Mr. Stitt’s victory was among many landmark wins for Indigenous candidates in November 2018, including U.S. Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico and U.S. Representative Sharice Davids of Kansas. Mr. Stitt, a political newcomer who won with about 54% of the vote, was not well known in Native communities in Oklahoma. Nonetheless, his Cherokee citizenship gave some tribal leaders reason to be cautiously optimistic in the first several months of his tenure.

Regardless of tribal affiliation, many said they don’t understand why a Cherokee governor would try to squeeze money from tribal nations instead of pressuring other pillars of Oklahoma’s economy.

“I want to believe that what he’s doing is that he’s backed into a corner, and he just doesn’t know how to give up,” said Justin Wood, the chief of the Sac and Fox Nation and a Republican. “If he’s going to claim to be Cherokee, then I hope that he goes and learns about his heritage.”

Simon Romero is a national correspondent for The New York Times, covering immigration and other issues. Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.