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By Sarah Gray
MUSCOGEE NATION RESERVATION / TULSA, Okla. – Governor Kevin Stitt (R-OK) was the keynote speaker for the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce “State of the State” annual event on Thursday. Stitt used his short time at the podium to attack tribal sovereignty, brag about bringing the controversial car manufacturer Canoo to Oklahoma, and espouse misleading statements about Oklahoma’s “recovery” from the deadly COVID-19 pandemic; he did not speak directly about COVID response measures except for a few seconds during a Q&A period with other dignitaries.
Neither The Black Wall St. Times, nor numerous other media outlets, were able to ask the governor any questions directly or through his communications director. When we attempted to do so, Stitt quickly retreated through a back door.
The governor is known for becoming the first United States’ governor to contract COVID-19 and for his successful destruction of the intergovernmental relationship between the State of Oklahoma and the sovereign nations who share jurisdiction with the state.
Tulsa Public Schools defies governor’s ban on mask mandates
Prior to the event today, TheBWSTimes was made aware of a former draft of Stitt’s speech in which he was to “attack Tulsa Public Schools”. Sources shared there was an effort by the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce to distance itself from any possible attacks that may come from the governor. When members of the Chamber were asked at the event about this, two sources said they were unaware of any such detail but were relieved Tulsa Public Schools officials were not mentioned.
While the Chamber event happened downtown, Tulsa Public Schools announced that all TPS staff and students will be required to wear masks while inside school buildings beginning Monday, Aug. 30 and Tuesday, Sept. 7, respectively. This move is in sharp contrast to the governor’s inaction. Stitt chose to ignore the COVID crisis during his prepared remarks despite recent reports of an 8th grade student in Oklahoma City dying from COVID-19.
Prior to the event, we asked U.S. Congressman Kevin Hern what he expected to hear from the governor regarding the state’s COVID-19 response. “I have no idea. I just got back from Washington, so I have no idea,” Hern deflected. Following up, we asked what he was hoping to hear. “I just, to see what the status is of the state.”
Democratic Oklahoma state lawmakers criticize governor’s COVID response
State representatives from the Tulsa area had much more to say after hearing the governor’s speech. State Rep. Monroe Nichols (D-Tulsa) said in a release, “Governor Stitt hasn’t held a press conference on COVID since March, but today, he found time to address the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce.” Nichols continued, “This crisis has left Oklahomans begging for a leader, and at every turn, Governor Stitt has shown that it isn’t him. The Governor’s speech today proved him to be the most divisive and ineffective leader in our state’s history.”
State Rep. John Waldron (D-Tulsa) addressed inaction by both state and city leadership, saying “This is a great crisis, and there’s no room for half measures here. We ought to have shown more political courage and done the right thing by the citizens of Oklahoma and Tulsa.” Waldron continued, “I think it’s going to be very difficult to keep our public schools open if we as a community don’t exercise greater responsibility as a community and not just as individuals.”
The sentiment of Representatives Nichols and Waldron was not shared by their colleagues across the aisle, though. TheBWSTimes asked State Senator John Haste (R-Broken Arrow) for his thoughts about the new state law prohibiting locally elected school districts from implementing mask mandates.
Republican state lawmakers downplay COVID
Haste said there were some hospitals who were showing a drop in COVID cases. When asked if there were any who had dropped below 100% capacity, Haste said “I think there are some. I can’t tell you what they are but again, it’s still a challenge.”
Tulsa Public Schools’ first day of school was exactly one week ago, so the concern from many parents TheBWSTimes has spoken with is that in a week we may see a significant spike in pediatric COVID cases and hospitalizations. Haste said, “It’s one of those things where parents that want their children masked, they mask them. The ones that don’t, won’t. Don’t have to. And that’s where that option is. And obviously there’s conversations on both sides of that. It’s not necessarily one’s right or wrong. That’s where that choice comes in.”
Shifting the focus to teachers, we asked “do you have any suggestions for teachers who feel like they’re being left vulnerable in their classrooms since they’re not able to tell their students to mask? Teachers who may have underlying conditions or may be elders?” Haste responded, “Again, I think a teacher can wear a mask. A teacher can also, just like anything else, say ‘I would ask you to consider being masked.’ And then, they’re making that choice.”
Governor Kevin Stitt continues to lash out at McGirt Supreme Court case confirming Tribal Sovereignty
Stitt took a shotgun approach to addressing his position on the landmark Supreme Court decision on McGirt v. Oklahoma, which affirmed the Muscogee Nation reservation was never disestablished. He did not acknowledge that the plaintiff of the SCOTUS decision had been sentenced to life in federal prison just one day prior, in what is being viewed as a seamless transition from the state court system to the federal court system.
Stitt claimed the McGirt ruling created a “public-safety nightmare for victims and law enforcement.”
Muscogee Nation responded, saying McGirt “is not the biggest problem or threat to Oklahoma. The implementation of changes in criminal jurisdiction and other matters is well under way. Yesterday’s sentencing of Jimcy McGirt in U.S. District Court to three life sentences is a prime example of an orderly process that preserves public safety and delivers justice in the lawful, appropriate venue.” The statement concluded with “We must work together to turn these opportunities into reality. Unfortunately, the Governor has chosen to abstain from this process.”
During his speech. Stitt said, “Right now there are thousands of Oklahomans with Native heritage who are filing their taxes and checking a box alleging that they don’t live in the state of Oklahoma to avoid paying state income tax. But we all drive on the same roads. We all send our kids to the same public schools.” Governor Stitt’s children attend private schools.
The governor’s statement concerning citizens “checking a box” regarding residence and state income tax is alluding to the 1995 SCOTUS decision on Oklahoma Tax Commission v. Chickasaw Nation. The decision states, “When a State attempts to levy a tax directly on Indian tribes or their members inside Indian country, the proper approach is not, as the State contends, to weigh the relevant state and tribal interests. Rather, a more categorical approach should be employed: Absent clear congressional authorization, a State is without power to tax reservation lands and reservation Indians.”
Cherokee Nation chief responds
In a statement, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said “When Governor Stitt’s attempt to have the U.S. break its treaty obligations and demand the Supreme Court overturn its year-old decision fails, we hope he will join his fellow Oklahomans in seeking justice and public safety rather than political theater. In the meantime, we will continue to work cooperatively to support our people and everyone throughout the state.”
Former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma and Choctaw Nation citizen Trent Shores was cautiously optimistic about the future of the tribal-state relationships. “When everyone is seeing economic growth, that accrues to the benefit of all,” Shores said. “That means better ability to provide more public services, whether it’s through education, healthcare etc. When people have jobs and are able to work in a gainful and productive manner that’s good for everyone.”
Cherokee Nation Businesses, one of the largest employers in the state, had two tables for the event, but no tribal government or corporate leaders were in attendance. There did not appear to be any tribal representation at the event.
Approximately 600 people attended the midday event at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Tulsa. There were no readily apparent signs encouraging mask use within the event hall, and the vast majority of attendees were not using masks at any point during the event; the event service staff were all masked and appeared to be majority BIPOC employees.
Editor’s Note: Sarah Gray is a public relations professional who has worked on Democratic campaigns in Oklahoma.