Support for Native American Day scarce in Native America

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - It's plastered on every license plate, road map and tourist pamphlet issued by the state: "Oklahoma Native America."

But an attempt by Indian groups to have the state recognize them with a "Native American Day" has little support among leaders in the Oklahoma Legislature.

Legislation that would set aside the second Monday in October as Native American Day was filed this year at the state Capitol, where a sculpture of an Indian warrior stands atop the dome and a painting of the Cherokee warrior Sequoyah graces the rotunda.

But the measure was not heard by a House committee before a legislative deadline, effectively killing it for the year.

The bill's demise angered some American Indians who said their contributions to the state once known as Indian Territory deserve recognition with a state holiday.

"It's really a slap in the face to the Native American community," said Mike Graham of Muldrow, a disabled Army veteran and founder of United Native America, created in 1993 to promote a federal national holiday for American Indians.

"If the state of Oklahoma is going to have tax-paid holidays, then Native Americans should be at the top of that list," said Graham, a member of the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation, the second largest tribe in the nation.

"We feel like this would be a great opportunity to increase the knowledge of our students about the culture and the history of Native American tribes throughout the state," he said.

"The sad fact is that with the contributions that Native American tribes have made to the state of Oklahoma, it's an uphill battle," said Margo Gray of Tulsa, state board president of the Native American Chamber of Commerce, which represents 650 businesses in Oklahoma.

"We're the heart of Indian country in the United States. We don't want it to be an us-and-them thing. We're all Oklahomans. We have the same values - common values, common ground," Gray said.

Oklahoma is home to 39 tribes. In the 2000 census, 254,810 Oklahomans identified themselves as one-race Indians. Only California has more Indian residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Native American Day measure was filed by Rep. Glen Bud Smithson, D-Sallisaw, whose district includes part of the old Cherokee Nation and the former home of Sequoyah.

"I thought it was a very good bill," Smithson said. "We are the Indian nation, home to probably more tribes than any state in the nation."

The measure would have added Native American Day to the list of holidays and observances that are officially recognized by the state, including Mother's Day in May, Juneteenth National Freedom Day in June and Will Rogers Day in November.

The date set aside for Native American Day is traditionally observed as Columbus Day - a holiday that American Indian groups want to remove from the calendar. Graham said Columbus' arrival in North America heralded the beginning of the decline of Indian populations and culture.

"We've tried getting state governments to enact laws to get schools to teach the full true history of Columbus," he said.

The state already recognizes Indian Day on the first Saturday after the full moon in September. But Graham said his group wants to replace it with a Native American Day similar to observances in California and South Dakota.

The bill gives government agencies and banks the option of closing on any day designated in the statute, but does not require it.

The bill was assigned to the House Rules Committee, where the committee's chairwoman, Rep. Sue Tibbs, R-Tulsa, refused to give it a hearing, Smithson said.

"She told me that she did not want to hear it. She did not give me a reason," Smithson said. "I told her she was going to disappoint some people. She said: 'I'm a tough lady and I can handle the heat."'

Tibbs did not return telephone calls by The Associated Press to her state Capitol office and her home in Tulsa seeking comment.

"To not give it a chance to be heard I thought was kind of rude," Smithson said.

But the chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, Gary Jones, said the potential cost of closing government and financial offices for a new holiday made the bill unattractive to the House's GOP majority.

"I can understand why they didn't hear the bill. You're talking about a pretty big impact here," said Jones, whose ancestry includes members of the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes.

Closing down state government offices for a day would cost millions of dollars, Jones said. Doing it nationwide would cost billions.

"We can celebrate our heritage without putting a paid day off," he said.

House Speaker Pro Tem Susan Winchester, R-Chickasha, said she has requested a legislative study on tribal relations to find ways for the state and tribal governments to work more closely.

"We're seeing more and more legislation dealing with these issue. I think we need a long-term solution," Winchester said.

Meanwhile, American Indian groups said they plan to turn up the pressure on lawmakers to give them the recognition they say they deserve in Native America.

"We have a lot of members behind us," Gray said. "For us not to get a day, just for recognition, is a sad state."

American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Oklahoma