A single traffic stop could rewrite how the state of Oklahoma deals with the 39 federally recognized Native American tribal nations within its borders.
On Nov. 7, Crystal Deroin, one of the 3,300 members of the Otoe-Missouria tribe, was stopped by a state highway patrol officer near Enid, a city about an hour and a half north of Oklahoma City. In addition to being cited for speeding, The Associated Press reported, she got another ticket: $249 because of her license plate.
The alleged crime? Failure to pay state automobile taxes because she had a tag issued by her tribe but didn’t live within its geographic boundaries. Under a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Native American tribes have been allowed to issue their own valid tags to members. An estimated 34 of the tribes in Oklahoma have done so.
But now Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration is calling the system into question, the latest in what some tribal leaders see as a series of provocations against their governments and what could be yet another attempt to challenge a 2020 Supreme Court ruling favoring tribal governments.
“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 concerning tribal tags,” Otoe-Missouria Chairman John Shotton said in a statement, adding the tribe was looking at its legal options.
The chief of the Cherokee Nation backed up Shotton in his own statement, calling the state’s position “ignorant and unquestionably illegal.” (The Cherokee Nation has significantly more members ― about 450,000, making it the United States’ largest ― and political power than the Otoe-Missouria.)
“Governor Stitt’s lawless and fact free approach to tribal sovereignty is nothing new and his actions against our citizens will not be tolerated,” said Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Marc Roark, a law professor at the University of Tulsa, said the state was potentially “playing with fire” on the issue because of the 2020 McGirt ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. That ruling said the Muscogee (Creek) reservation in Oklahoma had never been formally canceled by the federal government, raising legal questions about whether the state could enforce laws on tribal land rather than the federal government or the tribe. The boundaries of several more tribal nations were later added, meaning that now most of eastern Oklahoma is Indian Country.
“If I was advising the state as a lawyer, I would be very worried about sending something up that might potentially raise another McGirt issue about regulation in tribal territory,” Roark told HuffPost.
Until it became a state in 1907, Oklahoma served as the designated dumping ground for various tribes forced to relocate from elsewhere in the United States while white settlers moved westward, giving it a long and deep Native heritage.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 27.3% of Oklahoma residents self-identify as solely Native American or in combination with other ethnicities in the 2020 census.
Tribal tags are commonplace in the state, popular both as a colorful expression of Indigenous identity but also as a way to save money on car taxes compared with state registration.
“They’re very common,” Roark said of the tags. “It’s not unusual driving around Tulsa to see that.”
The state and Stitt have said they are simply enforcing the law as defined in 1993 by the Supreme Court, even though news of the traffic stop sent shockwaves across the state for being so unusual.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety sent HuffPost an undated DPS memo stating that the only exceptions to having a state tag are for tribal members who register their car through the state and “reside and principally garage” their car in their tribe’s territory or whose tribes have a tag agreement with the state (called a compact) and thus can have tags anywhere. Oklahoma says only the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes have such an agreement. There’s disagreement over whether a third compact, with the Cherokees, remains in force.
As for the seemingly newfound appetite for enforcement, DPS spokeswoman Sarah Stewart said in an email: “I can tell you that we’ve always enforced ‘failure to pay taxes due the state.’”
Stitt has denied he had any role in the DPS’ stance but said he supports it.
“We all drive on the same roads,” Stitt told the online outlet Oklahoma Voice. “And in my opinion, we should all pay the same tag, title and tax. It’s pretty simple.”
“When you look at the Otoe-Missouria tribe or the Apache or the Creek or Seminole, any of those tags, they’re literally just printing the tag and the state’s not receiving one dime of revenue.”
Stitt spokeswoman Abegail Cave told HuffPost that Stitt did not ask the DPS specifically to crack down on the tags. “He’s just asking that the law is enforced.”
But for the tribes, it’s the latest example of challenges to their authority by the state or Stitt ― himself an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation ― in particular in recent years. In 2019, tribes successfully sued him in federal court when he tried to renegotiate their gambling compacts with the state.
After the McGirt decision, Stitt pushed for the Supreme Court to rehear the case once a new justice, Amy Coney Barrett, was seated. Though unsuccessful, the court did make a decision that limited McGirt’s reach in criminal cases.
He vetoed bills to extend existing compacts on tag fees and cigarette taxes with tribes, but the GOP-dominated state legislature overrode the vetoes. He also vetoed a bill allowing the wearing of tribal regalia at high school and college graduations. It met the same veto override fate.
Stitt had also called for tighter regulation of campaign financing after the state’s five major tribes all publicly backed his Democratic opponent for governor last year, with two of the tribal leaders donating to Joy Hofmeister and one leader saying his tribe had supported her directly.
The ongoing fights between the Republican-led state government and the tribes have led some to find other ways to resolve the uncertainty around the McGirt decision. Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, a moderate Republican, said the city may look at making its own compacts with tribal nations.
“We are now the largest city in a reservation in America, so let’s celebrate that,” he said in his State of the City address. “Let’s make it a benefit rather than acting like it is a problem.”
Roark said agreements bypassing the state are one way the state may lose its leverage in its fight with the tribes. Another would be continuing to seek a rematch on McGirt.
“One of the things that is happening here is an attempt to create some showdown to make McGirt an issue,” he said, even though the Supreme Court turned down the chance to reverse the decision in 2022. “It doesn’t look like McGirt is going to go anywhere.”