Studying What's Best After McGirt
Several of you are asking about who's on our taskforce on the impact of the McGirt decision? It's a good question.
Our task force isn't a small group and doesn't consist of a set number of people. The need for social distancing during COVID-19 means we're scattered across all four points of the compass, and our task force doesn't meet in person. We meet on a conference call. For another, there are lots of people on the call.
That's because I organized the task force to include functions, not people. Every office or program in the Choctaw Nation which we think may be impacted by McGirt has one or more attendees on the call. That means the calls are pretty sprawling, with over 25 or 30 people.
John Hobbs, our executive director of public safety, is chairing our meetings. We believe John's group will be the first group impacted, and Assistant Chief and I want the task force to be peer-led, so John was a natural choice. We'll be meeting weekly for the indefinite future.
Our task force is composed of representatives from Choctaw government departments handling legal, personnel, education, communications, government relations, member services, and quite a few other areas. Our immediate task is to figure out the impacts across the Choctaw Nation, and organize ourselves. People from our government departments speak frankly about their questions or needs, and if we can't sort it out right there and then, we make a note to work on it later.
We still believe we have some time — at least a few months, most likely — before McGirt applies to us — or, as John Hobbs likes to put it, "crosses the boundaries of the Choctaw Nation." But there are certain things we need to start on now. Our first action item was to post ten new Tribal Patrolmen positions. It may take some time to recruit the ten, and then they need to be trained. Meanwhile, we've ordered their equipment.
We're also looking at hiring an additional seven people to help with Indian child welfare — six social workers and a supervisor. Most people think of law enforcement whenever they think of sovereignty because they're so visible. They wear uniforms and drive patrol cars. But Indian child welfare is equally important and is an important and meaningful expression of our sovereignty. It's one of the most important ways we say who we are as a people.
We're looking at ways to rename our task force so that it better describes what we're doing. "McGirt" was the name of the case before the Supreme Court but it doesn't talk about our future plans. Look for us to be announcing a new name for the task force soon.
Oklahoma Commission on Cooperative Sovereignty
I met on Thursday with the Oklahoma Commission on Cooperative Sovereignty, and I think it was a very positive experience. Several chiefs and I met with the commission individually by Zoom (a teleconference software). They asked good questions and I had an opportunity to educate them on some of what we're doing as a tribe. My takeaway from the meeting was the commission members are interested in learning more about us, and we had a productive discussion.
One aspect I was able to share with them is we don't want to duplicate existing institutions or procedures. We're interested in using cross-deputization agreements so that we don't have to build new jails, for example. We already partner with cities, counties and the state on a great many things, and I told them we can easily expand on this by putting in place additional agreements or compacts. We're not out to reinvent the wheel.
Other reservations in this country have similar arrangements in place with state and federal governments, and we're looking into what these are and whether we can use them here. I told the commission we can learn a lot from what others are already doing. Our research into this is underway now.
One of the committee's major concerns is that we may be interested in establishing wholly separate sets of laws or procedures — something they say would be hard for businesses to work with. I assured them we agree in the value of achieving a balance for consistency. We've worked hard over the years to make southeastern Oklahoma a great place live and work, and part of our success has rested on having a stable business climate. We agree that consistency will be important.
I made the point that this is why I'm advocating that we slow down and not rush to change things. Just as our meeting by Zoom was productive, we need more such meetings and more exchanges of information. It was very valuable. I believe we're all closer to being in agreement than is generally realized. And I think we need to take our time and get to know each other, and the issues, better. We clearly all agreed we want what's best for everyone who lives here.
Choctaws have an ancient tradition of sitting down and treating — that's the old word for getting to know and negotiating — with others, and that's what we did on Thursday. I want us to be doing more of that. It was time well spent.