Explaining The Controversy Surrounding Tribal Tags

“The federal law is, if you don't have a compact with the state of Oklahoma you can take your car and drive anywhere on Indian land, but you can't on non-Indian land,” said Rep. Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City). “Now that's never been enforced in the past, it looks like it may start to be enforced.”

Friday, November 10th 2023, 5:18 pm



A tribal citizen with tribal tags received a traffic ticket from Oklahoma Highway Patrol recently, and was told by state troopers it was because her address on her driver's license wasn't within the tribe's jurisdiction.

This is a federal law that has been in place since 1993 that says a car with tribal plates can only be driven legally on tribal land, unless the driver resides on tribal land or that tribe has a compact with the state of Oklahoma. This law has been largely ignored, until recently.

A member of the Otoe-Missouria tribe received a $249 ticket, because her tribal vehicle tags were essentially invalid. The woman was pulled over for speeding, but received a ticket after a trooper realized her address was not in the tribal jurisdiction of her Otoe-Missouria tribal tags.

“The federal law is, if you don't have a compact with the state of Oklahoma you can take your car and drive anywhere on Indian land, but you can't on non-Indian land,” said Rep. Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City). “Now that's never been enforced in the past, it looks like it may start to be enforced.”

Echols says this law has been in place since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1993.

Otoe-Missouria Chairman John Shotton said in a statement: “After over 20 years of cooperation between the state and tribes regarding vehicle tag registration, it appears the state has altered its position of understanding.”

“I think the tribal tag law for the safety of law enforcement should have always been enforced,” said Rep. Echols.

“The importance is, if you're a non-compacting tribe, none of the fees go to the roads outside of tribal land and the information on your tag doesn't go into the law enforcement database and that's very dangerous for our law enforcement partners,” said Rep. Echols.

The Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes have a long-standing compact with the state meaning their tribal tags aren’t affected by the federal law. But those compacts require them to pay taxes to the state and share vehicle registration information with the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety.

“Three of our partners have tribal compacts where they can take tribal tags and drive all over the state of Oklahoma, but there are 39 recognized tribes,” said Rep. Echols.

Echols says any of the additional 36 tribes who don’t have that compact can work with state leaders to enter into one, and they would not be impacted by the federal law under a compact.

“The answer to all of this is intergovernmental cooperation and compacting,” said Rep. Echols.

The three tribes that do have an existing motor vehicle compact with the state, are in the midst of renegotiating that compact. The state legislature extended the current compact for one more year, as they work with the tribes on a new agreement.

Gov. Kevin Stitt had initially vetoed the legislation to extend the compact, but lawmakers went into a special session to override the veto, thus extending the compact with the three tribes. If the compact expires without a new agreement over the next year, the state could lose out on potentially millions of dollars from the tribes.

Oklahoma Highway Patrol sent a statement, further explaining the federal law:

“There are two circumstances in which an Indian living in Oklahoma may use a tribal tag in lieu of a state-issued tag:
• Pursuant to the United States Supreme Court's holding in Okla. Tax Comm'n v. Sac & Fox Nation, 508 U.S. 14 (1993), Indians may use a tribal tag if they (1) have registered their vehicles through the tribe and (2) reside and principally garage their vehicle in the tribe's Indian country.
• For tribes with a valid compact with the state, members of those tribes may lawfully use a tribal tag no matter where the person lives.
Other than these two circumstances, all Oklahomans must register their vehicles with an Oklahoma tag and registration. Oklahomans who fail to do so are subject to enforcement under the Oklahoma Vehicle License and Registration Act, which may include a misdemeanor citation and/or impoundment of the vehicle.”

Governor Stitt said in a statement:

“This is addressing a significant public safety issue that puts law enforcement and others at risk. If tribal governments won’t share vehicle registration information with DPS, we can’t keep our officers and our streets safe. Members of tribes with valid compacts that provide needed car registration information will not be ticketed.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol is simply enforcing the law and following U.S. Supreme Court precedent.”


Explainer: Oklahoma's Tribal Compacts

A lot of revenue between tribes and the state of Oklahoma is due to compacts. Oklahoma lawmakers and tribes have maintained compacts for decades now.

However, disputes about the compacts have created challenges for lawmakers and contention between some tribes and Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt.

Lawmakers recently decided to override Gov. Stitt's veto of two bills that would extend compacts about how the state and tribes share revenue from taxes on tobacco sales and motor vehicle tags.

Stitt expressed concern that unless the compacts are renegotiated, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark McGirt decision on tribal sovereignty, which says a large portion of eastern Oklahoma remains a Native American reservation, could allow tribes to undercut non-tribal retailers across that area.

For a brief overview of the conflict, CLICK HERE.

What is a tribal compact?

A compact is a type of contract between a state and tribes. Compacts between states and tribes put in place rules for the management of gaming activities, and how the state and tribes divide income from taxes on tobacco sales and motor vehicles. Although a compact is negotiated between a tribe and a state, the U.S. Secretary of Interior must approve it.

CLICK HERE for more information from Oklahoma.gov.

What is a gaming compact?

Oklahoma voters in 2004 approved SQ 712, which set up a model compact between the state and Native American tribes to regulate tribal gaming operations. The tribes were allowed to manage specific games in return for making payments to the state.

CLICK HERE for more information about Oklahoma's gaming compact.

What does Class III gaming mean?

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) Class III includes all forms of gaming; lucrative, casino-style slot machines, and ball and dice games. Class III gaming needs a tribal ordinance to pass, but it also requires tribes to conduct Class III activities “in conformance with a Tribal-State compact entered into by the Indian tribe and the State.”

What is the State-Tribal Gaming Act?

Through the State-Tribal Gaming Act, the state laid out exact terms of its offer for a gaming compact to allow Class III gaming to each federally recognized tribe within Oklahoma. Oklahoma tribes interested in Class III gaming were able to simply accept those terms without negotiations that are usually necessary in other states.

CLICK HERE for more information from the Oklahoma Bar Association.

How many tribes have gaming compacts?

There are 35 tribes that have gaming compacts with the State of Oklahoma:

  1. Absentee Shawnee Tribe
  2. Apache Tribe
  3. Caddo Nation of Oklahoma
  4. Citizen Potawatomi Nation
  5. Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma
  6. Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes
  7. Chickasaw Nation
  8. Choctaw Nation
  9. Comanche Nation
  10. Delaware Nation
  11. Eastern Shawnee Tribe
  12. Fort Sill Apache Tribe
  13. Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma
  14. Kaw Nation of Oklahoma
  15. Kialegee Tribal Town of Oklahoma
  16. Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma
  17. Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma
  18. Miami Nation
  19. Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma
  20. Muscogee (Creek) Nation
  21. Osage Nation
  22. Otoe-Missouria Tribe
  23. Ottawa Tribe
  24. Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma
  25. Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma
  26. Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma
  27. Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma
  28. Sac & Fox Nation
  29. Seminole Nation
  30. Seneca-Cayuga Tribes of Oklahoma
  31. Shawnee Tribe
  32. Thlopthlocco Tribal Town
  33. Tonkawa Tribe
  34. Wichita and Affiliated Tribes
  35. Wyandotte Nation


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