Law & Principles

Tribal chiefs chosen by few tribal members

Ray Carter | June 14, 2023

Although Gov. Kevin Stitt is Cherokee, he has often been at odds with the leadership of several Oklahoma tribes—primarily the Cherokee Nation, Choctaw Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Seminole Nation, and Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

The leaders of those five tribes have claimed to speak on behalf of up to 800,000 tribal citizens. But election records tell a different story.

The leaders of those five tribes were chosen by just 42,459 tribal citizens combined—with four of the five tribes’ leaders selected by just 20,674 votes combined.

Although precise figures are not available, election results suggest that Gov. Kevin Stitt received far more raw votes from American Indian voters in Oklahoma in his 2022 re-election campaign than the combined number of tribal citizens who have cast votes in favor of the elected chiefs of all five aforementioned tribes.

Stitt received 639,484 votes last November, or 55.45 percent of votes cast, in an election where 50.35 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. According to the U.S. Census, 9.7 percent of Oklahoma citizens are American Indian, which comes to 389,921 individuals.

If turnout among Oklahoma’s American Indian population fell in line with the overall trend of just over 50 percent last November, and if Stitt drew the votes of just one-in-three American Indian voters in Oklahoma, that would give him the direct support of far more American Indian citizens than the number of direct votes cast for the leaders of all five major tribes combined.

And there’s reason to think Stitt did far better with American Indian voters than a ratio of one-in-three support.

Trevor Smith, chief research officer for WPA Intelligence, which has done work for Stitt, notes that there are 48 precincts in Oklahoma where more than 10 percent of voters are Native American. Stitt won 35 of those precincts.

In many of those precincts, the race wasn’t close. For example, Stitt received 69 percent of the vote in one precinct where 36 percent of voters are American Indian. He drew 70 percent of the vote in another precinct where 19 percent of voters are American Indian. He drew 63 percent of the vote in a third precinct where 23 percent of voters are Native American. Stitt received 83 percent of the votes cast in another precinct where 17 percent of voters are American Indian.

“Clearly, Governor Stitt’s support in precincts with sizable populations of Native Americans suggest that he is extremely strong with card-carrying members of several tribes,” Smith said.

Stitt’s dominance in eastern Oklahoma counties that lie within the historic reservation areas of the five tribes was especially notable since the leaders of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole nations endorsed Stitt’s Democratic opponent in the race.

At the press conference announcing their endorsement, a spokesperson said that the five tribes accounted for 800,000 citizens in Oklahoma. But Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joy Hofmeister received only 481,904 votes total in the Nov. 8 election, and 45 percent of her voters were in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, representing the state’s urban core, not historic reservation areas.

Meanwhile, Stitt dominated the region that is home to the five tribes and many of their tribal members. Of the 40 counties that lie partially or completely within the historic reservation areas of the five tribes, Stitt received 65 percent of the vote, or more, in 24 of those counties, and he received more than 60 percent of the vote in 35 of those counties.

Few voters participate in tribal elections

The raw number of votes cast for Stitt, including thousands cast by Oklahoma’s tribal members, contrasts sharply with the small number of votes cast by tribal citizens in tribal elections for chief.

According to unofficial results posted on the website of the Cherokee Nation Election Commission, Chuck Hoskin Jr. was reelected to another term as principal chief this year with only 10,756 votes cast for his election. That represents just 2.5 percent of 430,000 Cherokee Nation tribal citizens worldwide (all of whom can vote in a tribal election).

Even if all of Hoskins’ support came from Oklahoma residents, his supporters would account for just 7.6 percent of the more than 141,000 Cherokee Nation citizens who reside within the tribe’s historic reservation boundaries in northeastern Oklahoma, according to the tribe.

Similarly, the Muscogee Nation claims 86,100 citizens, but David Hill was elected Muscogee principal chief with just 3,399 votes cast for his election, or a little less than 4 percent of tribal citizens.

“Chuck Hoskin, Jr., has alienated conservative Christians—of which the Cherokee Nation has a longstanding Christian tradition—with his woke agenda, his anti-gun agenda, and his incessant attack on his own citizen that is Kevin Stitt.” —State Sen. Shane Jett

Lewis Johnson received just 1,019 votes when he was elected Seminole chief in 2021. That represents just 5.4 percent of 18,800 enrolled Seminole tribal members (according to public reports) or 7.5 percent of the 13,533 reported to live within the state of Oklahoma.

Currently, about 75,000 people are enrolled citizens of the Chickasaw Nation. None of them voted to re-elect current Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby in this year’s election because no other candidates even filed for the office. The same thing happened in 2019, and in numerous prior elections.

In fact, no Chickasaw has actually voted for Anoatubby since 2003 because the race has not drawn interest from any other candidates since that time. In the 2003 race, 5,500 Chickasaw voted for Anoatubby, a figure equal to about 7.3 percent of enrolled citizens today.

Similarly, no Choctaw citizens actually voted for Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton this year because no other candidates filed. Batton was also the only candidate to file in 2019. In 2015, Batton did receive the support of 21,785 voters, which represents just under 11 percent of the roughly 200,000 tribal members currently claimed by the Choctaw.

State Sen. Shane Jett, a Shawnee Republican who is Cherokee, said the election practices of the Cherokee Nation cause some to question if their ballot is truly secret, and said some incidents lead critics to question the validity of the process, which can deter voting.

For example, Jett said about 1,200 votes were rejected in the Cherokee chief race this year.

Jett said it is not surprising that so few Cherokees actively vote in elections for chief, or that so many Cherokees cast ballots for Stitt’s election at a time when the governor was sparring with the Cherokee chief.

“Chuck Hoskin, Jr., has alienated conservative Christians—of which the Cherokee Nation has a longstanding Christian tradition—with his woke agenda, his anti-gun agenda, and his incessant attack on his own citizen that is Kevin Stitt,” Jett said. “Many Cherokees are disenfranchised with his leftist leadership and do vote for Kevin Stitt, and do not vote nor support the radical agenda that is divisive and is destructive to Oklahoma that is being led by Chuck Hoskin, Jr., and his predecessor Bill John Baker.”

Stitt is among the many tribal members who do not participate in tribal government. He recently noted he has never voted in a tribal election.

Referencing his Cherokee relatives who live near Skiatook and eastern Oklahoma, Stitt said, “We look at ourselves as Oklahomans. We’re proud of our heritage. I get a bad rap on some of the Indian stuff because I’m just so pro-Oklahoma. And as the governor of Oklahoma, I can’t think about what’s best for just Cherokee tribal politics. I’ve got to think about what’s best for all of Oklahoma.”

Tribal leaders have outsized political influence despite meager support from their own citizens

Despite being selected by only a small sliver of tribal citizens, the leaders of tribal nations have outsized clout in state politics, thanks in part to the significant funds that flow through tribal coffers. Much of that is due to the casinos operated by tribes, but it is also tied to federal funds that flow to tribes (often based on tribal enrollment, not participation in tribal government).

And Oklahoma tribes financially benefit from special state-tribal agreements that direct millions of dollars to the tribes—with that money typically controlled by the small share of tribal citizens involved in tribal elections, rather than the much larger body of tribal citizens.

Currently, tribal officials are urging lawmakers to override Stitt’s veto of two bills that would automatically renew state-tribal compacts on car tags and tobacco taxes.

Stitt has said the compacts should be renegotiated to limit the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, in which the court declared the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Oklahoma reservation was never formally disestablished for purposes of federal major-crimes law.

That ruling has since been expanded to include other tribes whose historic reservations cover most of eastern Oklahoma.

While current state-tribal tobacco compacts were previously understood to apply only to smoke shops operating on tribal trust land, there have been indications tribal officials now plan to claim that any business selling tobacco in eastern Oklahoma is covered by the compacts so long as the owner is a tribal citizen because of McGirt.

That would exponentially increase the share of tobacco sales covered by compacts—and supersize the millions in tax collections directed to tribal governments in turn. Tribal governments get to keep half of state tobacco taxes collected on sales in their shops under the compacts.

Tribes’ financial windfalls facilitate campaign contributions, political spending

According to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, the Cherokee Nation has given more than $1.3 million directly to candidates and political entities in Oklahoma since 2015, including the Political Action Committees of both Democratic and Republican caucuses.

The Chickasaw Nation has donated more than $2.5 million to political candidates and committees during that time, according to the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

The Choctaw Nation has contributed more than $1.5 million.

That does not account for money the tribes may have spent via independent expenditures that were not direct donations to a candidate.

The 2022 governor’s race was notable for millions in independent-expenditure spending on ads attacking Stitt. Officials with the governor’s campaign have publicly estimated as much as $50 million may have been spent on those attack ads.

Because many of the entities that produced the attack ads are not required to publicize their donors, it is not known if the five tribes were financially involved, although critics have raised the question.

Jett said publicly reported contributions are just “the tip of the iceberg that is for public consumption.”

Referring to the Cherokee Nation, he said the tribe also creates limited liability companies “that then make non-reported expenditures on behalf of candidates by hiring consultants, and then those consultants provide free services to liberal Democrats. They also do large contracts with lobbyists in D.C., and then those lobbyists end up making contributions without naming the benefactor.”

Jett said many vendors with Cherokee Nation contracts, in turn, contribute “copiously” to liberal causes and candidates.

While the tribe’s publicly reported donations are roughly split between Democrats and Republicans, Jett said the Cherokees’ other contributions skew heavily to Democrats.

And even the publicly reported contributions often go to political figures whose views are well out of line with mainstream Oklahomans, including many tribal members.

At an Aug. 15, 2022, meeting of the Cherokee Nation PAC Subcommittee, one member of the subcommittee asked about a contribution to U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who was in a high-profile re-election race at that time.

In a response, a tribal spokesperson told the committee that Warnock was “considered a vulnerable member, and he’s a priority of leadership, so whenever we make up our list, we also take into account committee composition, leadership, leadership priorities, their voting record, that kind of thing. And so that was flagged for us as a member that was vulnerable.”

Warnock’s ratings from various interest groups show he received perfect scores from groups such as the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the National Education Association, but he never voted in favor of legislation favored by the National Right to Life Committee, Americans for Prosperity, American Energy Alliance, Independent Petroleum Association of America, National Rifle Association or the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Stitt said he is like many Oklahomans who are tribal members. He is a proud Oklahoman who is also proud to be Cherokee, and he wants the state to be a great place for all to live with everyone treated the same.

“I’m a fourth generation that grew up here. I’m proud of my heritage,” Stitt said. “But I don’t believe you should have a whole different set of rules than every (other) Oklahoman.”

NOTE: This story has been updated since publication, in the 23rd paragraph.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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