From Environment to Missing and Murdered Women and Girls: What Matters to Native American Voters Now
Tanzina Vega: This summer, the Supreme Court sided with native groups and ruling that the United States must recognize the eastern half of Oklahoma as tribal territory. Now around one quarter of the state's recent oil and gas wells are situated on tribal land, and that's left Oklahoma's oil and gas producers scrambling to respond to the decision. Last week, the industry was handed a much needed reprieve when the Environmental Protection Agency gave the state of Oklahoma more authority to regulate tribal lands.
For more on what the EPA's decision will mean, I'm going to talk to Rebecca Nagle, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, journalist, and host of the podcast This Land.
Rebecca, thanks for joining me.
Rebecca Nagle: Thank you so much for having me.
Tanzina: What exactly did the EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler decide in terms of giving Oklahoma, the state of Oklahoma, more authority over the environment and these lands in particular?
Rebecca: Yes. To understand what happened this week, we actually have to go all the way back to 2005. In that year, a senator from Oklahoma, Senator Inhofe attached a rider to a very long and mostly in the weeds transportation bill. It was just a couple sentences that gave the state of Oklahoma regulatory authority over reservations within the state, if it's so asked for. This had not been enacted, it had sat dormant for 15 years. Then on July 9th, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had never disestablished the reservation of Muscogee Creek Nation. Even though the state of Oklahoma had not recognized that reservation for over a century, that it was still legally Indian land.
I think, one thing that's really important for a lot of folks to realize is that tribal jurisdiction, including civil jurisdiction, which regulatory authority falls under, is already extremely limited by the Supreme Court. A lot of the fears that we saw from oil and gas during this case, were quite overblown. Also, I just think dishonest, during the court proceedings, oil and gas, were running around like Chicken Little saying, if Muscogee Creek Nation wins, the sky is going to fall down, knowing full well the whole time that they had this rider in their back pocket. Unfortunately, because we have a very pro-oil state and a pro-oil EPA, it didn't take long for them to get it enacted.
Tanzina: I want to play a clip here from Oklahoma, Governor Stitt who first requested environmental control from the EPA back in July.
Gov. Stitt: I want tribes to be very successful, but not at the expense of non-tribal businesses. I believe over the long haul, if we don't have a level playing field, if we don't understand what the rules are, we will not have non-tribal businesses growing and establishing and coming and expanding in Eastern Oklahoma.
Tanzina: Rebecca, why is Stitt or Governor Stitt so concerned about? Is there a non-level playing field right now? If there is, I would imagine it tilts in favor of non-tribal businesses, not the other way around?
Rebecca: Exactly. Tribal jurisdiction is extremely complicated on reservations, but to summarize, tribes have very, very little regulatory authority over non-native businesses, because of a series of court decisions that came out in the early '80s. What we see happen over and over and over again in Indian country, is that this fear, and I think we really have to call it overblown white panic. I think we also have to talk about it as being racist is this idea that tribal governments are inferior and would do a worse job of having regulatory authority than the state of Oklahoma that has deregulated fracking to the point that now in Oklahoma, we have man-made earthquakes.
Within that, because of the way the Supreme Court has already limited tribal jurisdiction, we see over and over again tribes actually trying to prevent non-native corporations from polluting their lands, prevent non-native corporations from dumping toxic waste, and from mining uranium and things like that. Very, very often, those corporations get away with it anyways. Oklahoma is the site of one of the biggest superfund sites right now that the EPA is still failing to adequately clean up. Here in Northeastern Oklahoma on Quapaw land, there are chat piles from lead and zinc mining. They are so large, you can see them from Google Earth.
It mostly fell on the BIA, but there's a long history of even where tribal reservations and regulatory authority is recognized. Non-native corporations are getting away with behavior like that. This idea that tribes having jurisdiction would cause chaos, would wreak havoc is the same argument Oklahoma has been making throughout the many years history of this case.
I think what we need to do is that Congress needs to fix that rider. Congress has the authority to reverse what Inhofe snuck in a very undemocratic process without the consultation or knowledge of tribes or really anybody else from Oklahoma. We need to talk about fixing that.
Tanzina: I'm speaking with journalists, Rebecca Nagle about a recent EPA decision to give the state of Oklahoma authority over many environmental issues on tribal lands. That's just one of the issues on the minds of many native voters this year. Here's what some of those listeners had to say.
Casey: My name Casey from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I would love to see any politicians really recognized First Nation's existence and issues as a part of their platform.
Linda: My name is Linda, Little Bear, and I live in Hoboken, New Jersey. My people are at the Penobscot from Maine. I would like to see them get better medical care. I would like reparations from the United States Government. People don't realize that 100 million of us were slaughtered, 100 million. To be honest, I hold out near no hope that your government will help us.
Tanzina: You can keep calling us to tell us your thoughts on that at 877-8-MY-TAKE. That's 877-869-8253. I'm joined again now by Rebecca Nagle. Thanks for staying on the line with me, Rebecca.
Rebecca: Yes, thank you for having me.
Tanzina: We heard a couple of calls up there. I'm wondering, as far as what you're hearing from our callers, does that align with what you're hearing from people from Native voters heading into this election?
Rebecca: Yes. I think one thing that's important to underscore is that Indian country is an incredibly diverse place. There are over 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States. We're in different states, different regions, we have different cultures and histories and language. Even within our own tribes if one thing is true about Native people, we have a lot of different viewpoints. I do think that within that the coronavirus pandemic has hit tribes and hit Indian country really hard and is absolutely an issue that people are focused on.
We're still seeing tribes and Indian health services and urban Indian health centers struggle to get basic needs, basic supplies, and with a second relief or a third relief package now been installed for over 100 days, I think a lot of tribes are really looking for leadership at the national level that will bring that needed relief.
Tanzina: Rebecca, of course, we know we continue to battle the coronavirus in this country. We also know that communities of color have been disproportionately affected that includes Native communities. Where does that stand for this population as we head into really the fall in the winter as far as an election issue?
Rebecca: I think it is absolutely an election issue. I think oftentimes, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Native Americans is left out of the national conversation, whether it's the media coverage, the policy discussion, and we're finding that's even happening in the data collection itself. A lot of counties and states are categorizing Native COVID patients as other instead of actually capturing the data, and we already-
Tanzina: Is that typical?
Rebecca: Yes, it's actually very common. There are some studies that have shown that up to half of Native patients are miscategorized as the wrong race in hospital records and we see that even on vital records. Vital records are things like birth and death certificates. In one study, they found that about a third of people are miscategorized on their vital records. When we think about how coronavirus is impacting Indian country, we know that it is having a disproportionate impact and then we are also experiencing a second crisis where we're being erased from the data. That informs policy conversations, that informs the allocation of resources. It's something that absolutely needs to be addressed.
Tanzina: So far, we're a little less than a month away from the presidential election. I'm wondering what you're hearing from, if anything, from Joe Biden's campaign and Kamala Harris's campaign about Native issues that's interesting or promising or not?
Rebecca: Yes. I would say that Biden does have a platform for Native issues. I would love to see it be more specific. I think, during the primary, we saw a few platforms that really got into the weeds of policy, that for me, personally, I think every Democratic leader is going to say things like upholding the treaty and trust responsibility with tribes, living up to the promise that the United States has made to our tribes respecting tribal sovereignty. I think where the rubber really hits the road, is what policy measures does that actually mean. I would love to see a platform that's more specific to that.
Tanzina: One thing that has been addressed at least, and we've talked about this extensively here on The Takeaway is the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in this country and beyond. We know that Savanna's law was something that was just passed and had bipartisan support. What else needs to be done, Rebecca, in this particular issue as we head into this election?
Rebecca: I think that Savanna's Act is a historic win. We also have to recognize that it does the bare minimum. It's just going in and doing things like helping law enforcement collect good data, and have actually the proper response when a native woman goes missing and murdered, which is something that women who are white don't have to worry about. What Native advocates have been calling for for years, is a full restoration of tribal jurisdiction.
Right now, if you are non-native, and you go on to a reservation, and you commit rape, you commit murder, you kidnap somebody, you abuse a child, the tribe is actually prohibited from prosecuting you because you are not Native. While violent crime has dropped across the country in recent decades, it has skyrocketed in Indian country because of this jurisdictional loophole that was created by the Supreme Court.
What we need to see Congress and the next administration do is go in and fix that. We have known for years that that is the main part of the answer to keeping Native women and children safe and so we just need the political will to get it done.
Tanzina: One of the things that's come up also, among the long list of issues that affect Native communities is representation. As you mentioned earlier, data collection, the US Census, but really also looking at voter suppression, what are some of the main issues that you're seeing with voter suppression?
Rebecca: There was a really famous issue that came up in the midterms, where Republicans were trying to defeat Heidi Heitkamp. They required that your ID that you use to vote in North Dakota could not have a P.O box. It had to have a physical street address. Because many folks who live on reservations live in more remote areas that may not even have a street number, use P.O boxes. We've seen things like that.
There was a very famous gerrymandering case that happened in Utah where actually the Navajo Nation was able to use the Voting Rights Act to start a lawsuit about the representation on a county executive board there and the way it tied to national issues that people might hear about is the Bears Ears National Monument. When President Trump said that he was upholding the wish of the local government to diminish that monument, it was actually the local representation, misrepresented the many Native people who lived in that area because of the way the area had been gerrymandered.
Tanzina: Rebecca Nagle is a journalist and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and she also hosts the podcast This Land. Rebecca, thanks for being with me.
Rebecca: Thank you so much for having me.
Tanzina: Let's remind our listeners that Rebecca was also on a panel for First Peoples Week here at WNYC's The Greene Space and you can find the recording for that at firstpeoplesweek.org.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.