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A History Of The Inter-Tribal Council Of the Five Civilized Tribes

Chapter Three:

Section One: Indian Self Determination Act

Besides trying to right past wrongs inflicted on the nations, many meetings of the ITC in the late 1971s and early 1980s were absorbed with debates of a very different nature-what would the future bring to the tribes. When the administration of President Richard Nixon ended the government’s attempt to terminate the Indian nations across the country with the passage of Indian Self Determination Act (PL 93-638), the destinies of the Five Civilized Tribes were altered dramatically.

Beginning in the late 1970s, consequently, the representatives at ITC gatherings tried to find solutions as how “to facilitate the establishment of a meaningful Indian Self Determination Policy which would permit an orderly transition from federal domination of programs and services for Indians to effective and meaningful participation by the Indian people in the planning, conduct, and administration of those programs and services.” In essence, henceforth the nations had to find ways and means to direct their own destinies by contracting and managing services and programs formerly run by government agencies and personnel. Thus as noted earlier, the nations started to take over by contracting their medical programs. In time, many programs like JOM, Higher Education, and others, would join the list of those being directed by the tribes themselves.

Section Two: Revised Constitutions

Before the Five Civilized Tribes could make much progress under PL93-638, nevertheless, another major consideration surfaced which greatly absorbed the attention of ITC. In the late 197s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, at the urging and with the cooperation of tribal leaders, decided that the nations needed revised constitutions. This became necessary because at the advent of statehood, the Five Civilized Tribes gave up their tribal government and became part of the State of Oklahoma. Though left technically still in force, the original constitutions were badly outdated for the modern era.

In a related manner, the Five Civilized Tribes were affected by the comments of Thomas J. Ellison, (Choctaw) Area Director of the Muskogee Area Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, at the first ITC meeting in 1979 when he stated, “Without a constitution, the only persons recognized are the people on the Dawes Commission Roll. Right now we aren’t even Indians; with constitutions, we will all be Indians again.” What Ellison meant was that new constitutions would allow those Native Americans and their descendants left off the original rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes when they closed in the statehood era to establish individual membership in the tribes.

After forming constitutional committees, resistance flared in the nations by groups who wished to keep the old constitutions. And, even after long and, at times, bitter debated had ended with constitutions being approved, continuing opposition forced more delays, lawsuits, and even the resubmission of some of the constitutions to the voters. Eventually, the question of constitutions, the one subject that dominated the deliberations of the ITC from the 1970s into the early 1980s, also ended in a progressive and dynamic manner.

Commenting on the long battles at a 1983 ITC meeting, for instance, Governor Overton James proudly stated, “Our faith in the Chickasaw people was no unnoted. We felt all the time that they would make the changes that would be good for a true democracy and tribal government.” Muscogee (Creek) Chief Claude Cox, President of the ITC, joined in that sentiment by declaring, “I think it’s good that we’re getting these constitutions, even though it has been a task, a lot of unrest. I think it’s going to make us stronger. I’m just pleased to hear that these things are coming about ··· that we can all work together on many issues.”

A subsequent statement Chief Cox made at that particular meeting in 1983 was also very appropriate regarding the history of the ITC. In finishing his remarks, Cox declared: “The ITC is a real strong organization and when things get rough, we will always get together and try to solve the problems. You can see that this group is very well-known throughout Indian Country and is called on many times to advise. We’ve always tried to help ··· and we are moving along.” In fact, Cox’s contentions were more that accurate-in the early 1980s things were very rough in Indian Territory.

Among the many problems confronting the ITC and the nations’ leaders was their relationship with the BIA itself. For one thing, the ITC became convinced that a BIA realignment plan meant that he Muskogee Area Office would be dismantled and the functions transferred to Anadarko. Assured by BIA officials that this unacceptable situation was not going to happen, representatives at the first ITC meeting in 1983 became alarmed over the fact that several positions had indeed been transferred to Anadarko. Many on the Council believed that “the Central office was initiating a policy of gradually trying to move by piecemeal’ the functions administered by Muskogee to Anadarko.”

In a related fashion, the ITC was not pleased with the actions, or lack thereof, by the BIA. By 1983, the Seminole Nation had been going through severe turmoil for many months. The problem began when, at what was called by some a “wildcat meeting,” Chief James Milam and Assistant Chief Alan Miller were impeached. Because the Seminole Constitution stated that the chief must be present to conduct official business, and Milam said that he was not, he ignored the action taken by some twenty-three council members. Nevertheless, within days the Wewoka Agency Superintendent not only recognized the impeachment but also froze the assets of the tribe and ordered the “former officials” to vacate the tribal complex.

Section Three: Resolutions

By early 1983, leaders among the ITC decided that the disturbing matters had gone far enough. In a resolution to Kenneth Smith, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, the Council’s members expressed the frustrations in the following words:

    On January 14, 1983, the Principal Chiefs and Governor of the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw nations, met to consider solutions to operational problems within the Muskogee Area Office.

    Of the area discussed, primary concern was expressed in regard to Area Office decisions to reduce and eliminate authority at the Agency level.

    Also of concern is the inability of the Area Office to make timely, definitive decisions regarding tribal matters. The problem exist with routine actions, as well as in cases of unique situations.

    As you are aware, the details of the problems at the Muskogee Area Office have been presented by individual tribes on numerous occasions.

In concluding their resolution, the ITC asked for renewed swift and decisive action by BIA Area officials. Unfortunately, before meaningful dialogue could continue at the local level, the Area Director decided to retire. But, rather than immediately sending out a new official, the BIA did two perplexing and ominous things-more positions were eliminated at the Muskogee office, and Washington announced that there would be an “Acting Director.” Angered at the actions, the ITC united to denounce the BIA moves at its October 1983 meeting. After lengthy discussions, two historically significant resolutions were drafted demanding that the rights and prominence of the Five Civilized Tribes be respected!

The first resolution declared: “WHEREAS, the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma feels it would be to the advantage of all that immediate action be taken to fill the position of the Area Director of the Muskogee Area Office.” The second resolution adopted that day decreed: “WHEREAS, along these same line, this Council demands that no other action be taken now or in the future to transfer programs or services from the Muskogee Area Office.” Finally, the Council decreed, “It is felt that low morale caused by the lack of a permanent employee in the Area Director’s position as well as the lack of job security caused by the recent transfer of the administrative portion of the Muskogee Area Office has seriously affected the programs, obligations, and services rendered by the personnel of the Muskogee Area Office.”

This time Washington listened to the strongly united voices coming from Indian Territory. By the time the ITC convened in 1984, to be directed that year by Council President, Chief Hollis Roberts of the Choctaw Nation, a new Area Director, Dr. Abe Zuni, was on hand to present the good wishes of the BIA and the Department of the Interior. In truth, for anyone who studies the records of the ITC, it was apparent that a new attitude of confidence permeated the Council beginning that day in 1984.

The initiation of the new and more positive feelings of cooperation and assertiveness actually went back beyond the demands made to the BIA in late 1983. In point of fact, the assertive mood was being forged and hardened in response to actions taken early in 1982 by the administration of President Ronald Reagan. While Regan’s Secretary of the Interior adversely attacked the air, land, water, and mineral resources of the country, other administration officials were busy deeply slashing the federal budget, especially in areas of human services. Worry immediately filled the meetings of the ITC as resources diminished for health, education, job training, housing, care for the elderly, and many other programs. Just trying to develop tribal economies to provide better services and promote self-sufficiency, leaders of the Five Tribes reacted in dismay.

First, the ITC made sure Washington understood the terrible consequences the budget cuts would bring. To begin with, Chief Hollis Roberts observed about reduced housing units thusly: “This is out-and-out discrimination against the Native Americans of this country. It is saddening that this administration would totally deprive poorest Americans, namely Native Americans, of safe, sanitary, and decent homes. Statistics show that 12 percent of all Americans live in substandard housing, while 49 percent of all Indians live in such housing.” As Chief Roberts and others spoke out, the ITC decried the fact that on a recent trip to Washington, on which they were joined by Indian leaders from around the country, they were blatantly ignored by the administration. While the President had taken time to visit foreign dignitaries, neither he nor the Secretary of the Interior would make time to meet with the delegates. In fact, the Secretary announced he had no intention of even discussing the points the tribes had presented to his aides.

Obviously, if Washington had ever turned a deaf ear to the ITC and the Indian citizens the Council represented, it was in the early 1980s. But, those who led the tribes and the ITC would not surrender. Yet, with their national economies only developing so the tribes could better support themselves, representatives on the ITC were very troubled. For instance, at the April 1983 ITC meeting, it was all too apparent that cost cuts pertaining to IHS were dangerously curtailing medical services to tribal populations. Speaking out, Ross Swimmer, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, denounced Oklahoma’s reduced share of IHS funds compared to those of “other areas across the country ··· where they are still doing very exotic things ··· whatever a patient wants ··· whereas in Oklahoma owing to funding cuts cancer patients are refused chemotherapy.”

Comparing funding with those tribes residing on reservations, the chief remarked:

    ··· Oklahoma is not a reservation. They say we don’t need these special programs ··· Five thousand BIA employees work on the Navajo reservation. Thirty percent of the funding goes to them ··· We are trying to manage, cutting it to the bone ··· If we don’t succeed with the administration, we will go to the Congress ··· surely we can go up there together and get more money for IHS and keep the services we need ··· it is up to us to do it.

Adding his voice to the remarks he had heard, Chief Roberts urged those at the ITC meeting “to get their voices united and let their representatives know what our desires are.” On a national level, the National Tribal Chairman’s Association (NTCA), to which the ITC elected Governor Overton James as a member, declared, “The Reagan administration has made a shambles of the Indian programs.” According to James, the NTCA worked hard as a “lobbying group for the benefit of Indian people all over the United States.”

For the remainder of the 1980s, the ITC did react at every opportunity to intercede for the well being of he citizens of the Five Civilized Tribes. In matters of health during the 1980s, for instance, PL94-437, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, enabled the Indian governments to upgrade their level of health care by the tribes actively participating in the actual management of health programs. To assure that the “intent and policy” of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act continued for the future, moreover, the ITC petitioned Congressman Morris K. Udall, Chairman of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, to stress the desire of the Five Civilized Tribes “for the reauthorization of this important act that expended funds for clinical care, preventive health, dental care, mental health, alcoholism accident prevention, community health representatives, and the maintenance of safe water, sewage and solid waste systems.” Furthermore, the ITC recommended the creation of the Office of Indian Health Affairs within the Office of the Secretary of Health and Human Services: “To make the Department more responsive to the health needs of the Indian people.”

That the policy of contracted health programs could be very beneficial was illustrated by the Choctaw nation taking over the complete operations from IHS at the hospital in Talihina on February 1, 1985. Immediately successful, the health progress exemplified at Talihina was publicly saluted by Dr. H. C. Townsley (Chickasaw), the Oklahoma City Area Director of the IHS, at the ITC meeting in April 1985 held at Arrowhead Lodge. At that same meeting, Chief Hollis Roberts, the President of the ITC, also recognized on behalf of the delegates the great contributions to Indian health care made by Calvin G. Beames, a Choctaw who was the first Indian to be selected as an IHS Area Director in Oklahoma.

Always vigilant about health policy matters, when the IHS proposed to set eligibility requirements for health service for Indian people to require blood quantum of ¼ degree or more for direct and contract care, the ITC, now led by Principal Chief of the Cherokees, Wilma Mankiller, passed a resolution on July 11, 1986: “To strongly oppose the proposed regulations of the IHS through resolutions ··· through testimony and written comments by elected tribal officials at public hearings ··· and further to direct the Senate Select Committee and House Committee on Insular Affairs to place a two-year moratorium on proposed rule-making ··· and that no policy change occur without tribal participation.” Before long, the power of the ITC was demonstrated when the IHS dropped the proposed change. Consequently, the important decision about those who would receive health services was left to the authority of the individual tribes and nations.

Meanwhile, as health services continued to be reduced on a nationwide basis in the 1980s, the ITC vehemently opposed: every offset in IHS budgets; constant efforts to terminate funding for community health representative programs; and, especially, the inequity of funding of IHS programs for the Indian people in Oklahoma. On the latter theme, a resolution passed by the ITC on April 24, 1989, denounced that “the Indian Health Service provides medical and other services to the Indian people of Oklahoma which contains 23 percent of the IHS user population in the entire United States, but receives only 11 percent of the overall IHS budget to provide those services.” After receiving the resolution accompanied with facts and figures to prove the argument that “inequity existed and must be rectified, “the IHS listened to the united and strong voice of the ITC. Consequently, millions of additional dollars were directed to the Five Civilized Tribes in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

One additional area of attention for the ITC remained the problem of how to fund the most possible assistance to the elderly of the tribes. To focus attention on the issues regarding the older citizens of the Five Civilized Tribes, the ITC decided “to sponsor officially” the 19845 meeting of the National Indian Council on Aging (NCIA) at Tulsa. There, delegates from the ITC “worked closely with leaders from around the country to bring about improved services to the Indian elderly of Oklahoma, as well as other states.” Additionally, in that connection, the ITC informed Oklahoma’s congressional delegation that the Council was “resolved” to bring about “the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act and to require the inclusion of Title VI in its entirety.” To further ensure better service to its elderly population, the ITC approved a resolution at the July 1984 meeting “to request that Indian Health Service establish and implement a priority service to Indian elders at IHS clinic/hospitals.”

In that respect, the ITC declared that it fully supported the Oklahoma Indian Council on Aging’s (OICA) request to Dr. Everett Rhodes, Director of the IHS, “to endorse a memorandum to all IHS clinics and hospitals under his direction authorizing that each service unit director implement procedures to improve services to Indian elders who are now required to wait too long before receiving necessary medical services.” Leaving nothing un-addressed to assure that Indian benefits were represented, the ITC passed a third resolution: “Calling upon the U.S. commissioner on Aging to further respond to the concerns of the Indian community throughout the United States by specifying in writing that the person selected for the position of Special Assistant will be an American Indian of federally recognized tribe.”

Pursuing its crusade to make life better for the elderly, after members of the Oklahoma Indian Council on Aging and other interested Indian elders had given testimonies in the Senate Chambers of the Oklahoma legislature before U.S. Senator Don Nickles in June 1986, the ITC ratified a resolution at its July meeting which resolved: “That the funding level for Title VI programs be raised to $25 million; that an Indian Desk be established in the office of the Administration on Aging; and that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) change their regulations which disallow residents of communities populations greater than 10,000 to participate in the commodity food programs, as this keeps many elderly from participating.”

Meanwhile, since economic development was of such vital importance to the ITC in the eighties, the Council passed a resolution at the April 1984 meeting, “Petitioning the United States Congress to repeal Section 119 of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974, as amended, because such section unfairly denies necessary Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to the Five Civilized Tribes, who are otherwise eligible to receive said funds for the betterment of their people.”

As written, the law declared that “the Secretary may not approve a grant to an Indian tribe unless the tribe was located on a reservation or in an Alaskan Native Village.” Thus, the real issue involved much more that a mere denial of needed funds. Since its very inception, one of the main goals of the ITC had been to convince officials at the state and national levels that the lands of the Five Civilized Tribes were-and should always be—regarded as “Indian Territory.” Therefore, the Council demanded that lands governed by the Five Tribes were to be considered as “Reservation Territory.” After once more making its voice heard, the ITC was again successful-the regulations were changed to make the Five Civilized Tribes eligible for CDBG grants. Although it would take a later lawsuit to close the debate, for all intents Washington had come much closer to recognizing eastern Oklahoma as “Indian Country” with this victory by the Council.

Badly hurt in the universal budget cuts of he eighties, meanwhile, were the services administered by the BIA under PL95-608, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978. Shockingly, in 1986 the BIA announced that it would not fund any tribe in eastern Oklahoma regarding services under the ICWA, leaving a void in forty-one counties. In an attempt to remedy this disaster, the ITC reacted by passing a resolution on April 11, 1986, requesting that “the ICW programs of the Five Civilized Tribes be granted a reevaluation in the establishment and operation of Indian child and family service programs and that the BIA restore the 55 percent cuts nationwide in funding from the ICW programs.” Then, when four of the Five Tribes were again denied funding for their ICW program in 1989, the ITC confirmed a second resolution requesting an “equitable review” for their appeals and the elimination of an extremely competitive process to secure ICW funds. “The ITC also offered the service of a “Task Force representing the ITC to work toward changes in procedure.”

At the January 1987 meeting, Lt. Governor Bill Anoatubby, of the Chickasaw Nation, warned the Inter-Tribal Council about regulation changes in the Indian Housing Program proposed by HUD; changes that would greatly detrimental to all Indian tribes. The revised regulations expected Mutual Help Home buyers, Anoatubby declared to make “a cash contribution of $750 and payment equal to the first three years of insurance coverage on the unity-a total of approximately $1,250.”

Opposing these rules, the Inter-Tribal Council enacted a resolution protesting that a $2,000 cash contribution obviously would place a potential home buyer in “extreme hardship, since they had to be in a very low-income bracket too qualify for the Indian Housing Program in the first place.” The Inter-Tribal Council further adopted a resolution that would require any future changes to the existing Housing Program to be submitted to the Secretary’s Committee on Indian and Alaskan Native Housing for discussion before being published in the “Federal Registry.” As with earlier battles, the ITC again emerged vindicated. The idea of a cash contribution was dropped and HUD promised to follow in the future established lines of discussion before “changing the rules.”