Judicial Center Choctaw Nation Photo

Tribal sovereignty is the right and ability to govern as a people to support our community and future generations.

Civic engagement an essential part of tribal sovereignty

By Tabatha Keaton
May 3, 2024

Tribal sovereignty is the right and ability to govern ourselves as a people to support our community and future generations. It empowers us in government-to-government exchange with local, state, and federal agencies. Tribal members play a significant role in this relationship by supporting tribal sovereignty directly in their communities, including engagement with federal and state agencies, involvement in local governments and organizations, and voting in elections.

“Being involved citizens of our communities is extremely important to the Choctaw Nation,” Choctaw Chief Gary Batton said. “To maintain our tribal sovereignty and self-empowerment as a tribal nation, being engaged locally in the civic process of voting and community building only helps the tribe maintain our sovereignty and importance as a nation.”

Choctaw Nation employees represent the Choctaw Nation on many federal agencies’ advisory boards and committees, including but not limited to the Department of Homeland Security Tribal Homeland Security Advisory Council, the U.S. Treasury Tribal Advisory Committee, the Department of Labor Workforce Information Advisory Council, and the HUD Tribal Intergovernmental Advisory Committee.

Jeff Hansen, Senior Director of Community Protection, has served in numerous roles on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s National Advisory Council (NAC), including as the first Native American to serve as its chair, and on the Department of Homeland Security’s Tribal Homeland Security Council.

“Serving in these capacities has provided an opportunity for the voice of Indian country to be heard. Our recommendations have impacted Federal Indian policy and procedures and changed how the Federal government interacts with tribes during natural disasters. These changes have recognized tribal sovereignty, providing tribes a direct line to the President’s office.”

When asked about his experience serving on these committees as a Choctaw tribal member, Hansen stated, “They were eager to hear from Indian Country. We changed the narrative of how these organizations interact with native communities and developed special working groups that address the unique challenges and needs of Indian Country. They respect our tribal sovereignty and culture; this respect didn’t exist ten years ago.”

Another tribal member serving on a national committee is Mason Emert, MPH, who was appointed to the National Advisory Council (NAC) for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

Emert, epidemiologist for the Choctaw Nation Health Services Authority (CNHSA) Public Health Department, researches the diseases facing the Choctaw Nation Reservation and any disparities regarding Native Americans. Throughout these past winter months, he tracked cases of respiratory diseases to keep CNHSA providers aware of spikes in occurrences of each disease.

“I’m always looking for ways to give back to my tribe and community,” says Emert. “Serving on this council will give me the latitude to make tangible progress to obtaining real public health on our Choctaw Nation reservation.”

Closer to home on the reservation, Choctaw tribal members serve in numerous city official positions and school boards.

As the Senior Governmental Affairs Strategist, Sara Jane Smallwood-Cocke works with nearly 100 municipal and county governments on the Choctaw Nation’s reservation and recruits and trains fellow Choctaws to run for public office and apply for political appointments.

“It is important for our tribal members to have a seat at the table. One way to do that is to serve at every level of government. Local organizations and municipalities impact our everyday lives, and having members serve on these boards supports tribal sovereignty at every level.”

Sara-Jane serves on numerous boards, including as a board member for the Oklahoma Academy for State Goals and Southeast Region Chair; and President of the Board of Trustees for the Eastern Oklahoma State College Foundation. She was also recently elected as the City Councilwoman for Ward 3 in Wilburton, Oklahoma.

Michele Frazier, recently elected to the Hugo School Board, explains how her decision to run for the school board connects to her Choctaw identity.

“Our tribal leaders and culture encourage our role as servant leaders, and for me, that meant getting involved in my local community.”

When asked for her advice to tribal members interested in running for local boards, Michele said that while running for a board position may be intimidating, it is important to step out of your comfort zone and seek out positions in your community that could use your voice.

“There was a time when tribal members didn’t have a voice, and as a people, I think we recognize the importance of being involved and supporting our communities. I was blessed to receive a lot of support from within my community and encouragement from Councilman Perry Thompson and his wife, Gail Thompson, both of whom have been examples of servant leadership in our community for many years. I am a proud Choctaw, but on the school board, I am a voice for all students.”

Public service is not the only way individuals can support tribal sovereignty in their communities. Voting in tribal, local, state, and federal elections can support and uphold tribal sovereignty in our everyday lives.

The presidential election will be held in November 2024, meaning tribal members can vote for the highest office in the United States. For more information on voting in this year’s election, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission recommends contacting your State or local election office at least seven weeks before an election to learn if you are registered to vote and what to do if you are not. More information on how to prepare to vote in the upcoming federal elections.

Individual actions like these go a long way toward supporting tribal sovereignty in our communities.


Jeff Hansen sits on auditorium stage, speaking to others.
Photo Provided

Jeff Hansen (center) is the first ever Native American to serve as the chair of the FEMA National Advisory Council.

Sara-Jane Smallwood-Cocke and daughter Jane at her city council seat after swearing-in ceremony
Photo Provided

Sara-Jane Smallwood-Cocke and daughter Jane at her city council seat after swearing in ceremony.