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Oklahoma governor hosts event to honor Native American heritage, families

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Oklahoma governor hosts event to honor Native American heritage, families

Nov 29, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Janelle Stecklein
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Oklahoma governor hosts event to honor Native American heritage, families
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Garland Thomas, of Tahlequah, shows an attendee at Native American Family Day how to throw a hatchet. (Photo by Janelle Stecklein/Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt hosted several dozen tribal members at a special event Tuesday designed to celebrate and honor Native American heritage and families.

Attendees said the event at the Oklahoma Governor’s Mansion was a fitting way to commemorate the end of Native American Heritage Month, but also served as a way for them to share some of their cultural and tribal beliefs with the Republican governor who has recently been at odds with many tribal leaders.

Melissa Jumper, a Cherokee member, who was one of about 60 people invited to the small gathering, said Stitt was doing an “awesome job” trying to understand the roots of Native American culture. 

“I’m excited to see the culture and the history of Native American tribes evolve and our government support them in culture, history and the way tribal business can be handled civilly,” said Jumper, of Tahlequah.

Jumper said the more Stitt learns about Native culture and the history of how tribal governments work and how Indigenous families function in their day-to-day lives, the better he’ll “understand how to support tribal government in history and culture.”

Stitt has feuded with tribal leaders as he’s attempted to renegotiate compacts on gaming, hunting and fishing licenses, tobacco tax revenue and motor vehicle registrations. He also recently backed the Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s controversial decision to begin ticketing tribal citizens who have tribal plates but live outside their traditional boundaries. He’s pushed back against tribal sovereignty and sought to negotiate compacts that give the state a greater share of revenue.

Spokespeople for the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw nations said Tuesday their tribal leaders were not invited to attend the governor’s event.

“We appreciate the gesture of a Native American Family Day at the Governor’s mansion,” said Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby in an email. “Until you inquired, we were not aware of the event.”

Outside on the mansion lawn, attendees threw hatchets at a target and introduced Stitt to stickball, a traditional Native game. Inside a pavilion, visitors ate traditional Indian tacos.

Stitt said the entire month of November has been about promoting families of all cultures.

“We thought this would be really fun to invite Native American friends from around the state to come and bring their families, their children, and then do a stickball game,” Stitt said.

He said Tuesday marked his first time playing the game. He even received his own set of sticks from a Cherokee member. He stopped briefly to speak to the media before heading inside for some “authentic Indian tacos.”

Stitt, who said he is part Cherokee, said he learned Tuesday that tribes used stickball to settle differences like disputes over hunting or grazing grounds.

“It was really fun,” Stitt said. “I really enjoyed it. My two sons were out here. And man, they did not take it easy on the governor. They were shoving around, and they certainly didn’t let me win, I’ll tell you that.”

At one point during the event, Stitt was hip-deep in a scrum of people jockeying for a ball.

Stitt said he also heard from attendees how important it is to pass Native American culture — and traditional sports like stickball — down to the next generation.

“It’s really fun to meet these cultures and meet people that really want to live it, that speak the language, that want to share it with the next generation,” he said.

Choogie Kingfisher, of Tahlequah, said he’s been a Cherokee storyteller for over 40 years and hoped he’d have the opportunity to share a story or two while he was there. He attended the event with his wife and three children.

“What better opportunity to be sitting on a lawn on the Governor’s Mansion to share stories,” Kingfisher began, when Stitt suddenly walked up behind him and tapped him cordially on the shoulder while shouting “the Governor’s tapped out” to his stickball team.

”(It’s) just a wonderful opportunity and makes me feel good that here we are on the Governor’s mansion (grounds) and sharing this cultural day as we’re drawing to a close of a Native American month,” Kingfisher said. 

He said Stitt’s decision to host the event was a “pleasant surprise” and he hopes the event becomes an annual one. 

He said most of this year’s attendees appeared to be Cherokee, but he’s hoping next year’s event will include people from more of the state’s 39 federally recognized tribes.