Courting Oklahoma's Native American Vote

Friday, September 1st 2006, 10:53 am
By: News On 6

One man who wants to be the next governor of Oklahoma says he's reaching out to Native Americans in the state. As their business success and political clout grows, candidates who might have overlooked the groups in the past are now courting the Native American vote.

Tribal leaders had some tough questions for Ernest Istook, a candidate with a controversial past on Indian issues. News on 6 reporter Heather Lewin explains.

"I respect the sovereignty of your tribes and I also respect the sovereignty of Oklahoma." Republican gubernatorial candidate Ernest Istook stood before the Oklahoma Tribal Summit and talked about a better understanding between state and tribal governments.

He said he didn't want to focus on past friction, but the audience wanted answers. "Our tribal members are taxpayers, your comments seem to indicate we are not taxpayers."

Ernest Istook: "If a tribe is able to do something that a person who is not a tribal member cannot do or a business that is not a tribal business cannot do. You should understand that that can create friction."

Tribal leaders point to Istook's record as a cause for their concern. As a member of the House he sponsored a bill that would take land out of trust if tribes didn't collect state taxes, along with his stance against current tobacco deals and Indian gaming.

Business owner Margo Gray: "What he doesn't see is the contributions, they employ all Oklahomans in small communities where we've had such a depressed economy, call the city of Catoosa, or Sand Springs or anywhere where there's a casino. It creates jobs, its stirs the economy that's what's good for Oklahoma."

No matter which candidate tribal leaders feel is the best, the challenge is to get that message out to the people and encourage thousands of Native American voters to head to the polls. The summit is also a launching pad for "Native Vote United."

Organizers say like much of the rest of the country, American Indian voting numbers are down. With 200,000 eligible voters in Oklahoma, volunteers hope to get 60-percent of Native Americans to cast a ballot. NCAI Legislative associate Cinda Hughes: "That would make us the largest voting block in the state of Oklahoma. So we would be able to have a significant impact on not only our local elections but also on the elections of our statewide officials."

Tribal leaders hope to hold a similar forum with Governor Brad Henry.