Can Oklahoma’s new Attorney General reset the state’s relationship with its tribal nations?

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond has pledged to improve his office’s relations with tribal nations in Oklahoma. This comes after nearly three years of tensions between the tribes and Governor Kevin Stitt’s administration over the McGirt vs. Oklahoma Supreme Court Decision and Gaming Compacts.

During a primary debate last summer with former Attorney General John O’Connor, Drummond said there needed to be more respect for the state’s tribal partners.

“The Indian members of Oklahoma are 400,000 strong,” Drummond explained during the debate hosted by NonDoc and News 9. “They’re Oklahomans, they’re us. We just have to treat our brothers and sisters with dignity and reach down the aisle and shake their hands.

Much of this debate focused on the landmark 2020 US Supreme Court decision McGirt vs. Oklahoma, which noted that much of the eastern part of the state is Indian land for the purposes of the Major Crimes Act. The decision and its implications came into focus in last fall’s election. Many tribal leaders and citizens said they wanted someone in office who respected their sovereignty and was willing to cooperate on criminal justice issues.

During his campaign and debate last summer, he vowed to respect the decision. When asked about a push by four other congressmen to lift the reservations, he said he would not support it. But he was careful to say that McGirt The decision applies only to criminal matters, not to civil or regulatory matters.

Drummond submitted one challenge with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals saying Oklahoma should be able to regulate mining under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). Last fall, US District Judge Stephen Friot deniedOklahoma’s request for an injunction, which states that all regulations governing open pit mining on the Cherokee, Choctaw and Muscogee Reservation are the responsibility of the federal government, not the state. Quoting Friot McGirt.

“Oklahoma is committed to continuing to regulate coal mining and reclamation on land within the outer boundaries of the Creek Reservation, the Choctaw Reservation and the Cherokee Reservation, as it has done for several decades. However, government regulation of these activities on Indian lands is now barred by SMCRA,” Friot wrote in November 2022.

Drummond says he has met with tribal leaders during his campaign and wants to work with tribal nations on issues ranging from criminal justice to mental health care.

The tribal leaders KOSU spoke to said they look forward to working with state leaders, including Drummond and realigning ties with the governor, who called the tribal leaders and asked them to attend his inauguration.

Other tribal leaders say they are cautious. “I’ll wait and see,” one said to KOSU.

KOSU’s Allison Herrera spoke with the newly sworn attorney general at his office in downtown Tulsa about improving relationships with tribal leaders and how their priorities are aligned. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Herrera: I spoke to several tribal leaders who supported your candidacy. You said you wanted to improve tribal relations. How will your office do that?

drummond: I consider the 39 tribes in the state of Oklahoma to be our secret weapon. I mean they are profoundly economically beneficial to the state. And the members of these tribal nations, as you know, represent at least more than 10% of Oklahoma’s population. Every Oklahoma stakeholder at the 10% level should receive the attention and full respect of the state government. And I think if you took the tribal nations out of Oklahoma, we’d be even further down economically than we are. So I think it’s just economically an influential group of people.

On the subject of McGirt

Drummond: We have McGirt, which has created a cacophony of issues in the world of law enforcement. My ultimate goal as Attorney General is to reconcile these issues and bridge this gap. And I start from an attitude of mutual respect and Native American sovereignty. Second, we do what we do best. The Native American tribes provide excellent health care and care and protection for their people. I would love to see the tribesmen help my fellow tribesmen improve the mental health criminal justice system and allow the state to do what it does best, which is to identify, prosecute, and arrest offenders.

Herrera: Would this result in a Tribal State Compact? Tribal prosecutors and attorneys general I’ve spoken to say that tribal justice systems created by tribal nations are in a better position than the state to prosecute perpetrators — especially when operating under the new provisions of the Violence Against Women Act fall.

drummond: I think what we’re going to see is a mechanism deployed where Law Against Violence Against Women remains in full force and is in effect virtually anywhere a tribe can be prosecuted and imprisoned within its legal ceiling. I think they should do it if they wish. And that is indeed three years that can be stacked up to three times for nine years. So if there’s a crime being committed that the tribe can pursue and imprison someone for three years or less, and they want to do that, I want them to do that. When they say we don’t have the infrastructure or that’s not our forte, I would love it if the state could do that for them and in cooperation with the Native American tribe. And as for the pact, I would prefer to just say agreement between the sovereigns. And I would suggest that negotiations with the Cherokees and the Choctaws are like negotiations with France and Germany. They are different nations. So I’m not assuming one size fits all. I await independent agreements between sovereigns that resolve the ambiguities involved McGirt.

Herrera: How were your talks with tribal leaders and what do they want from their state partners?

drummond: I visited about 20 tribal leaders and spoke to many of the attorney generals and chief attorneys of the respective tribes. I deal with independent nations, with independent issues and concerns. Basically, I think the problem was that the executive’s narrative is a matter of respect. And so I begin, and it’s very close to my heart to respect the Native American tribes. Our federal government and Supreme Court have unequivocally established the sovereignty of these independent nations within the state of Oklahoma.

Herrera: Tribes have invested heavily in their mental health care systems. They said it’s something they’re doing well and you want the state to work with them on it. Can you be more specific?

Drummond: I will be respectful to the tribes. You may not want this, but if we play to our strengths, Native American tribes take care of mental health as well or better than the state of Oklahoma.

It is my opinion, and I am neither a psychologist nor an expert on these matters, but I do believe that we have many men and women in our prison system who are at fault with mental health and the mental health deficiencies they have been placed in a placed in a position where they were judged to be criminals. And if we had mental health care for these people, they wouldn’t be in our correctional system. In my perfect world, we would have one reception desk, if any, where criminals or people charged with crimes would be admitted. They have a psychologist and someone in the DA’s office and they look at the tape and the interview and they decide we go to the left. That’s mental health. This, we go right. This is a real crime. I think we would solve a lot of our problems. We would end up being in the bottom ten of most categories.

On the subject of water in Osage County for the Osage Nation

Herrera: One of the concerns is water rights in Osage County. I know that in 2017 the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office sent the Osage Nation a cease-and-desist letter regarding a water well permit issued by the Osage Nation’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources. They are large landowners and ranchers. Do you consider this a conflict of interest in your current position?

Drummond: I see no conflict of interest. I want the law, whatever the law may be. And as we sit here on my 10th day in office, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on water rights or the body of laws surrounding water rights. But if there are rights that should be claimed by the Osage nation, then they should have those rights. If there are rights that the state of Oklahoma should have, then there should be rights there.

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