Community , Government , Candidates , Legal

UINOKT meeting brings updates and candidates running for office

TULSA, Okla. — With Oklahoma’s general election less than a month away, the ballot box was front and center at the fall quarterly meeting of the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.

In his opening remarks at Osage Casino Tulsa at the Oct. 15 meeting, Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear noted that while there are shared principles and history among many of the state’s 39 tribes, those similarities do not allow for a one size fits all approach, thus underscoring the need for tribes to turn out the vote.

“It is important that whoever is elected as Oklahoma’s governor, attorney general and these other positions understand the difference and have staff that understands the difference,” he said. “We need a commitment from these officials that they’ll have staff who see the difference.”

As per the Oklahoma Election Board, absentee ballot requests for the Nov. 6 general election must be received by 5 p.m. on Oct. 31. Early walk-in voting is scheduled for Nov. 1-2 from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. on Nov. 3 at county election boards across the state, with additional satellite locations for voters registered in Osage, Tulsa, Rogers, Wagoner, Cleveland, Comanche, and Oklahoma counties.

With those deadlines in mind, four candidates and a representative from a fifth campaign took the opportunity to seek support from tribal leaders in attendance.

Ashley McCray is the Democratic Party’s nominee for Oklahoma Corporation Commissioner. A citizen of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe and of Oglala Lakota descent, McCray lives in Norman and is currently working on her doctorate at the University of Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which has limited authority in Osage County due to the status of the Osage Mineral Estate, is the regulatory body for a host of wide-ranging interests, including oil and gas drilling, railroad and pipeline safety, wind turbines, telecommunications companies and ride-sharing services.

The environmental aspects of the job prompted McCray to run. Calling for a ban on the intrastate dumping of fracking wastewater.

“I don’t think OCC is doing its due diligence when it comes to pipeline companies,” she said. “We are the pipeline crossroads of the world. Fracking is setting us up for a catastrophe, as these pipelines were not built for earthquakes.”

An outgoing member of the Oklahoma Legislature and a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Anastasia Pittman is the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. Leveraging her experience in the legislature, she acknowledged the tribes’ contributions to Oklahoma infrastructure beyond casino dollars and bristled at the notion that they have not contributed enough to the budget.

“The casino money was supposed to be gravy,” she said in reference to the state’s ongoing budget cuts. “The tribes have contributed millions.”

Jasha Lyons-Echo Hawk, the Democratic nominee for Oklahoma House District 35, echoed that stance. House District 35 includes all of Pawnee County, plus parts of Payne, Creek, Noble and Osage counties.

“Members of the Oklahoma legislature tried to scapegoat us (the tribes) during the teacher walkout and claimed we haven’t paid our fair share to the state’s general fund and education fund,” she said. “We have.”

A December 2017 graduate of Oklahoma State University, Lyons-Echo Hawk is a citizen of the Seminole Nation and is of Pawnee, Omaha, Creek and Iowa descent.       Citing Oklahoma’s high rates of female incarceration and its impact on future generations, her platform includes an emphasis on criminal justice reform. 

Along with the three Native candidates, Kimberly Fobbs and Fred Dorrell also stumped for votes. Fobbs is the Democratic nominee for Insurance Commissioner while Dorrell is running for Labor Commissioner.

Despite the organization’s original announcement that it would host four candidates for lieutenant governor and governor at the meeting, Pittman was the only executive branch candidate to make an in-person appearance.

UINOKT Chairman George Tiger confirmed that invitations were extended to the Republican candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, but the campaigns for both Kevin Stitt and Matt Pinnell declined to send a representative.

Drew Edmondson was unable to attend but sent Tulsa attorney Keith McArtor to speak on his behalf. McArtor drew loud applause from attendees when he announced Edmondson’s intent to make the state’s Native American liaison a cabinet-level position.

Attendees also received an update from attorney Scott Sypolt on a pending lawsuit involving several Oklahoma tribes, including the Osage Nation.

Earlier this year, almost 20 tribes filed suit in federal court in an effort to block an order by the Federal Communications Commission that would allow wireless companies to skip consultation with tribes before setting up small cell wireless antennae that are less than 200 feet tall or not adjacent to an airport. The Wireless Infrastructure Streamlining Order carves out an exemption to both the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which require that tribes be consulted before any infrastructure projects are started.

Additionally, wireless companies are no longer legally obligated to pay upfront fees to tribes when providing an opportunity to comment on proposed cell tower projects.    

Tribes’ historical preservation offices often use those fees to cover the costs of studies to determine whether the proposed tower would impact any historical sites, such as burial grounds.

As per court filings, the FCC is projecting more than 25,000 new cell towers – most of them shorter and closer together -- in the coming year as part of an effort to build up 5G network coverage.

Sypolt said oral arguments have not yet been scheduled in the case, but the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has been willing to at least keep things moving with final briefs due in January.

“The bigger implication with this case is that if the FCC wins, no federal agency will be required to consult with Indian tribes,” he said.