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‘Sneak Attack’ on tribal license plates is causing widespread fear

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, Congressional Speaker Alice Goodfox, and other Oklahoma tribal leaders plan to meet at NCAI’s 80th Annual Convention & Marketplace this coming week to discuss options

It began when an Otoe-Missouria woman posted her traffic citation on Facebook. She was fined $249 for operating a vehicle “on which all taxes due this state have not been paid.” The officer’s remarks said she was operating her vehicle outside of the Otoe-Missouria’s tribal jurisdiction because she lives in Garfield County. The post went viral.

A lot is unknown at this point, aside from a memorandum issued by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol that begs more questions than answers.

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear said he has not received any communication from Gov. Stitt’s office, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol or the Oklahoma Department of Safety about any change in policy or edict concerning tribal tags.

“We’re looking at this as a sneak attack, but we are responding quickly. We just have to figure out what the best options are,” he said. “If it turns out the consensus between our Congress, Tax Commission, our AG and me is for the Nation to execute a compact [with the state] – we’ll move on that fast. But if it’s the consensus we fight in litigation, we have to take into consideration it’s the individual Osage at risk and we have to assess what are those risks.”

Standing Bear has instructed the ON Attorney General’s office to research the three existing tribal tag compacts the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee Nations have with the state.  

“We are hearing from other sources that they’re not just pulling over people with tribal tags, but they’re for other issues like no taillight, expired tag or something else,” he said. “Then when they look at their driver’s licenses if they are outside of their jurisdiction, like if they’re from Tahlequah or something, or Oklahoma City, that’s when they’ll issue a ticket or a warning. So far, we have not heard of any impoundments, or anybody charging anyone with a misdemeanor.”

He said he did receive information that two Osages living outside of Osage County were issued warnings with similar language referencing state taxes.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety Memorandum, there are two circumstances in which an “Indian” living in Oklahoma may use a tribal tag in lieu of a state-issued tag:

  • “Pursuant to the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Okla. Tax Comm’ v. Sac & Fox Nation, 508 U.S. 114 (1993), Indians may use a tribal tag if they (1) have registered their vehicles through the tribe and (2) reside and principally garage their vehicle in the tribe’s Indian country.”
  • “For tribes with a valid compact with the state, members of those tribes may lawfully use a tribal tag no matter where the person lives.”

“Other than these two circumstances, all Oklahomans must register their vehicles with an Oklahoma tag and registration. Oklahomans who fail to do so are subject to enforcement under the Oklahoma Vehicle License and Registration Act, which may include a misdemeanor citation and/or impoundment of the vehicle,” according to the memo.

The Osage News asked the OHP spokesperson whether “Indian country” consisted of reservation status, trust land, historical boundaries, or service area? Has there been a directive or policy change from Gov. Stitt’s office addressing this? Why is this an issue now? And, whether an Osage family driving to Tulsa would be stopped on their way to see the latest Marvel film? The response was to review the Sac & Fox opinion or consult legal counsel.  

The Osage Nation has been issuing tribal tags since the early 1990s. According to a 1997 memorandum from the Department of Public Safety, citing the case State v. Wakole, a member of a federally-recognized Oklahoma tribe, living in “Indian country” as defined by federal law and owning a vehicle bearing a valid license plate from the tribe has:

  • A valid license plate to be treated the same as an Oklahoma license plate under the provisions of 47 O.S. 1151 as amended by SB 586;
  • A valid license plate for purposes of obtaining a motor vehicle inspection; and
  • A valid license plate for purposes of obtaining an Oklahoma driver’s license.

Otoe-Missouria leadership also issued a statement about their tribal member who was issued a citation and fined $249.

“After over 20 years of cooperation between the State and Tribes regarding vehicle tag registration, it appears the State has altered its position of understanding concerning tribal tags,” Otoe-Missouria Chairman John Shotton said. “This change was made without notice or consultation with all Tribes that operate vehicle tag registration. We are concerned about this change and are reviewing all legal options to address this issue. Once again, consultation and/or diplomacy with the tribal governments prior to this policy implementation would have been helpful to avoid this difficult situation.”   

The National Congress of American Indians convenes their fall meeting on Monday, Nov. 13 and Standing Bear and Congressional Speaker Alice Goodfox will be there. He said they plan to meet with other tribal leaders in earnest on the tag issue.

The Osage Nation’s Communications office issued this statement:

“The Osage Nation is aware of the vehicle registration inquiries. This appears to be a change in cooperation by the State of Oklahoma over all tribal license plates. Please know this change was made without any consultation with the Osage Nation and without notice. The Osage Nation is working on multiple fronts to address the issue. Your safety and wellbeing is our top priority. Please do not put yourself or others in danger at any time when driving or otherwise. We will continue to update you as this situation progresses.”

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Shannon Shaw Duty
Shannon Shaw Dutyhttps://osagenews.org

Title: Editor

Email: sshaw@osagenation-nsn.gov

Twitter: @dutyshaw

Topic Expertise: Columnist, Culture, Community

Languages spoken: English, Osage (intermediate), Spanish (beginner)

Shannon Shaw Duty, Osage from the Grayhorse District, is the editor of the award-winning Osage News, the official independent media of the Osage Nation. She is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a master’s degree in Legal Studies with an emphasis in Indigenous Peoples Law. She currently sits on the Freedom of Information Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists. She has served as a board member for LION Publishers, as Vice President for the Pawhuska Public Schools Board of Education, on the Board of Directors for the Native American Journalists Association (now Indigenous Journalists Association) and served as a board member and Chairwoman for the Pawhuska Johnson O’Malley Parent Committee. She is a Chips Quinn Scholar, a former instructor for the Freedom Forum’s Native American Journalism Career Conference and the Freedom Forum’s American Indian Journalism Institute. She is a former reporter for The Santa Fe New Mexican. She is a 2012 recipient of the Native American 40 Under 40 from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. In 2014 she helped lead the Osage News to receive NAJA's Elias Boudinot Free Press Award. The Osage News won Best Newspaper from the SPJ-Oklahoma Chapter in their division 2018-2022. Her award-winning work has been published in Indian Country Today, The Washington Post, the Center for Public Integrity, NPR, the Associated Press, Tulsa World and others. She currently resides in Pawhuska, Okla., with her husband and together they share six children, two dogs and two cats.
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