January 17, 2017

Leaders revive Inter-Tribal Council of Five Civilized Tribes

NORMAN, Okla. – When the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes (ITCFCT) met at the Riverwind Casino on June 7-8, its leaders were breathing life back into a group that had been defunct for six years. Although it had a storied name, ITCFCT had mostly remained quiet during the post-gaming boom in the Sooner State.

With the election of new leaders in two of the five tribes, the idea to revitalize the organization took hold. Leaders from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Seminole Nation, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation gathered with their top thinkers to hash out their positions on issues like education, elders, enrollment and repatriation, among others.

Nearly a dozen work groups brainstormed during the two-day session, which was followed up by a two-hour general session opened to the public. About 130 tribal citizens, officials and employees from the five tribes attended to listen to mini state-of-the-nation addresses from their five respective leaders.

Back when ITCFCT met on a regular basis, the five tribes were concentrating on gaming expansion within their jurisdictions. It was a casino bonanza then-- only a few of the member tribes had opened their flagship casinos.  In 2004, their individual economic development followed the approval of state-tribal gaming compacts. Since then, the tribes are more in a position to focus on common interests rather than solely managing their respective gaming empires.

And while gaming is a vehicle for tribal development, Seminole Nation principal chief, Leonard Harjo, told attendees that diversifying gaming funds means keeping one eye on the future while doing business in the present.

“We know that gaming might not be with us forever,” Harjo said. “We need to invest in our people.”

Organizers said the gathering of what is referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes (a federal designation for the group) can once again be a steering mechanism for Oklahoma’s other tribes. Member tribes contend that what affects the eastern Oklahoma tribes sets the tone for similar issues that other tribes are facing, said Muscogee-Creek Nation member and spokesman, Edwin Marshall.

“The other tribes are waiting for us to take the lead,” he said.

Issues like state sovereignty were a recurrent theme. Murky are water rights, with two of the tribes (Chickasaw and Choctaw) engaged in a federal dispute with the state of Oklahoma over the transport of water to municipalities that the plaintiffs say are a violation of a 19th Century treaty. The case remains in federal court.

Choctaw Nation second chief, Gary Batton, made note of the strong tie between sovereignty and water during his address. Batton said the Choctaw Nation seal bore both the peace pipe and tomahawk, which represented the Choctaws’ willingness to negotiate but also their wiliness to defend its own.

“We believe it’s our water and our rights to that water belong to us,” he said.

Meanwhile, the American Indian Cultural Center in Oklahoma City could also benefit from their united advocacy, officials said. The beleaguered facility has hit a funding stumbling block to subsidize the high-tech museum. Additionally, the five tribes have suggestions for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ search for a new Eastern Regional director, officials said.

The goal of the newly gathered ITCFCT is to scout direction before it begins drafting jointly endorsed resolutions, officials said. What may start out as internal ideas could mean external solutions to help with situations that affect both state and tribes for the good, they said.

Cherokee principal chief, Bill John Baker, said the new year bodes good tidings from Cherokee Country. With a new leader decided in his jurisdiction, input should be productive and peaceful from all five sides.

“People believed they were making a difference in Indian Country when they were working in these groups,” Baker said. “We can do it faster, we can do it better.”

In their reinvigorated stance, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief George Tiger serves as chairman of the Executive Committee with Cherokee Nation principal chief Baker as vice-chairman. Executive Committee members are Chickasaw Nation Gov., Bill Anoatubby, Choctaw Nation chief, Greg Pyle and Seminole Nation Principal Chief Harjo.

The inter-tribal organization was founded in 1950 and is the oldest such tribal organization in the United States. The five tribes’ council is made of four the most populous of 562 federally recognized tribes with nearly 625,000 enrolled citizens, ITCFCT officials said.  Together, their economic impact exceeds $1 billion dollars.

Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief George Tiger, center, serves as chairman of the Executive Committee of the ITCFCT. The other members are, left to right, Choctaw Nation chief, Greg Pyle; Cherokee Nation principal chief Bill John Baker; Tiger; Seminole Nation Principal Chief Harjo and Chickasaw Nation Gov., Bill Anoatubby.