OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — While her office remains entangled in a lawsuit with two of Oklahoma’s largest Native American tribes over water rights, Gov. Mary Fallin emphasized Tuesday that productive relationships between the state and tribes are critical to Oklahoma’s economy.
Officials from about 20 of the state’s 38 federally recognized tribes joined Fallin at the state Capitol for an event recognizing a national proclamation of November as Native American Heritage month.
“In Oklahoma we appreciate and respect the impact that the tribes have had upon our state’s economy, on the jobs that have been created, certainly upon our culture,” Fallin said. “One of my top priorities as governor of Oklahoma has been to strengthen our economy, grow our jobs, to help our Oklahoma families be able to have a better quality of life, and the tribal governments … are important partners in helping us grow the prosperity of all Oklahoma citizens.”
The governor’s office is involved in negotiations with the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations in their dispute with the state over control of water in southeastern Oklahoma. A lawsuit filed by the tribes, which seeks to bar the state and Oklahoma City from transporting water from the region, is on hold while the two sides work with a court-appointed mediator. A spokesman for Fallin said both sides are prohibited from discussing the mediation talks because of the court’s gag order in the case.
The governor’s office a bill last year to eliminate the state’s Indian Affairs Commission and replace the state agency with a Native American liaison post in her office. Although Native American lawmakers initially voiced opposition, several tribal officials on Tuesday said they are pleased to be working directly with Jacque Hensley, a member the Kaw Nation appointed by Fallin to the post in July.
Fallin said Hensley is meeting regularly with tribal officials across the state and briefing the governor weekly on the current state of tribal relations.
“I think the turnout you had today showed that it is positive,” said Brian McLain, executive director of legislative advocacy for the Choctaw Nation. “I think (Fallin) hit the nail right on the head — working together is beneficial for all Oklahomans.”
Ron Sparkman, chief of the Shawnee Tribe and a former member of the Indian Affairs Commission, said he was concerned when lawmakers abolished the panel but that he is looking forward to working with the governor and Hensley.
“That’s something the governor wanted to do, and that’s her prerogative. We respect that,” Sparkman said. “Ms. Hensley has been to our meetings and put for the effort, and I hope that continues.”
Besides the lawsuit over water rights, Fallin’s office also is involved in negotiations with 28 different tribes over tobacco compacts with the state that regulate the tribal sale of tobacco products in Oklahoma. The current compacts were negotiated with Fallin’s predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, and are set to expire in 2013, according to the governor’s office.