Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. has made no secret of his feelings about Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor, calling him an enemy of tribal sovereignty.
He describes O’Connor as “the most anti-Indian attorney general” in the state’s history.
Hoskin is now hopeful for better relations between the tribe and state government after Tulsa attorney Gentner Drummond beat O’Connor in the June Republican primary.
“I think Gentner Drummond is very much in tune with reality and he knows that the success of the tribes (is a) benefit to the state,” Hoskin told The Frontier.
Drummond will now advance to the November general election against Libertarian candidate Lynda Steele.
Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed O’Connor in July 2021 after Attorney General Mike Hunter abruptly resigned. Under O’Connor, the state of Oklahoma pushed back against the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling, which weakened the state’s power to prosecute some crimes on tribal land. The month after Stitt appointed him, O’Connor petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the McGirt ruling. The court eventually ruled that the decision could not be applied retroactively. It also ruled last month that the state could prosecute non-Indians for crimes against tribal citizens.
The tribes viewed the legal challenges as attacks on their status as sovereign nations. Tribal leaders who spoke to The Frontier expressed some hope that a change in the Attorney General’s Office might lead to better working relationships with the state moving forward.
“We are pleased to see so many Oklahoma voters demonstrate they understand the
importance of having an attorney general who respects tribal sovereignty,” Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton said in a statement. “We expect the next attorney general will be someone willing to engage in constructive dialog with the Tribes as our governments work together to protect public safety and enforce the law.”
Jason Salsman, a spokesman for the Muscogee Nation, said that he “wouldn’t speculate” on what might happen after O’Connor’s ouster, but said the tribe was “excited” to see “what kind of ground we can gain in the relations.”
“It’s always good to have a fresh start,” Salsman said.
Drummond, who went on vacation following his primary win, did not respond to requests for comment by The Frontier.
“Mr. Drummond will collaborate with all parties to restore the partnership that has benefitted both the State and the tribes for decades,” a spokesman for Drummond’s campaign said.
Drummond said in June that he will “make it a priority to agree on a final resolution” on the McGirt decision “that guarantees justice for all victims.”
“I believe we can achieve this through cooperation and collaboration with local law enforcement, tribal leaders, and other vital stakeholders,” he said.
O’Connor still has a little more than five months before his term ends, and he told The Frontier he planned to continue to work on the McGirt fallout before leaving office.
O’Connor’s “top priority has been representing the best interests of all Oklahomans, and I will continue to do so through the end of my term,” he said in a statement to The Frontier.
“Our work is not done. We will continue to take care of the State’s business and address the issues that are important to Oklahomans,” O’Connor said. “As we move forward, Oklahoma welcomes the opportunity to continue to work with our tribal and federal partners from both the eastern and western sides of the state.”
In an email his campaign sent out following his election defeat, O’Connor wrote that he was proud of the role he played in the state’s legal challenges at the Supreme Court, saying he protected “state sovereignty and restricting the damage done by the McGirt decision.”
The day after the primary election, Stitt told Tulsa radio station KRMG he had spoken with Drummond after the race had been called and told him he “looked forward to working with him.”
“He wants what’s best (for Oklahoma) and we look forward to working together,” Stitt said. “He said ‘Hey Governor, I want to work closely with you to continue to make Oklahoma a Top 10 state,’ so I cannot wait to get to work and work with him in January.”
Hoskin told The Frontier he had met Drummond in the past year, and believes him to be “a thoughtful man, very analytical and mindful of the state’s history and history of the tribes.”
“I think tribes in Oklahoma will be heard by him … he will see success by the tribes and the exercise of sovereignty by the tribes doesn’t come at the expense of Oklahoma,” Hoskin said. “He doesn’t see the world as a zero-sum game whereas Kevin Stitt sees any strength by the tribes as taking away from the state.”
Hoskin is less optimistic that Stitt will repair what has been an icy relationship with Oklahoma’s American Indian population.
“To date (Stitt) has only demonstrated that he doesn’t see a world in with tribes are relevant, and he has actually ignored voices from across the state that have told him that being the most anti-Indian governor in the history of the state is actually bad for Oklahoma,” Hoskin told The Frontier. “So I don’t expect he will reach a different conclusion on the basis that now there will be an attorney general who is quite the opposite, and is quite thoughtful and generally supportive of tribal sovereignty.”
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