Congressman Tom Cole, a fifth-generation Oklahoman and a member of the Chickasaw Nation, is currently the only Native American in the U.S. House of Representatives. Well-known for his conservative views, he was a successful Republican political strategist before being elected to Congress in 2002 and also holds the distinction of having served as Oklahoma’s first Republican secretary of state. He is well-known in the Indian community and in Washington as an advocate of Native rights and of gaming as an engine of tribal economic development and self-sufficiency. He spoke recently with Casino Journal writer Maya Dollarhide about Indian gaming, the impact of the National Indian Gaming Association, and why he believes Oklahoma is better off for its tribal casinos.
Why are you such an ardent supporter of Indian gaming?
Cole: I’ve seen firsthand how important gaming can be to tribal economic development, and what it has meant to the lives of individual Native Americans.
Your own tribe is in the gaming business, isn’t it?
Cole: Yes. I’m an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, and gaming has been a transformative experience for us. It has allowed the tribe to capitalize itself. We reinvest our earnings, if you will, into other economic activities. But most importantly, gaming dollars have gone into important things like health care, scholarships, a senior citizens center, nutrition centers, basically any service you can name, so our casinos have really materially improved the lives of individual tribal members.
The Chickasaw Nation operates two very popular casinos, the WinStar World and Riverwind. How would you describe their economic impact?
Cole: Over 80 percent of our employees are not Chickasaw, and these casinos provide needed jobs and opportunities to a part of Oklahoma that has been historically depressed, and that’s been true of the other tribes as well. Again, I see a great deal of good that’s come out of Indian gaming in Oklahoma.
You’re the only Native American in Congress.
Cole: That’s correct. We need to change that.
How would you characterize the U.S. government’s relationship with Native people? Does our government, from your perspective, do a good job of supporting tribes’ sovereignty?
Cole: Cole: It really doesn’t. I think, frankly, it’s always a mixed bag in relation to Native Americans. The two [political] parties, historically … well, neither one has been particularly good.
What about the Obama administration?
Cole: This administration has done much better than others. And I appreciate some of the efforts that the Obama administration has made with respect to things like the Cobell [v. Salazar] case. And I think there is a genuine understanding of sovereignty. That was not true in the Clinton administration. It was not true in the Bush administration, in my view.
What more needs to be done?
Cole: We still have a lot of problems in Congress. There are a lot of members who don’t grasp the concept that when they swear alliance to the Constitution of the United States, they are swearing allegiance to Indian sovereignty, whether they know it or not, because it is in there. We have to spend a lot of time educating individual members and different administrations; we do that on a bipartisan basis. I serve as co-chairman of the Native American caucus with my good friend Dale Kildee of Michigan, who, of course, was the principle author of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Protecting sovereignty is a never-ending struggle. There are always threats to sovereignty, and you have to confront them each time they rear their head.
Oklahoma being home to so many Class II gaming machines, how do you feel about a state compact allowing for Class III games? Do you support it?
Cole: I do. But the problem we’ve had in Oklahoma is, we want to move towards compacts at our own pace. We have Class II gaming, and there have been efforts by the previous regime at the National Indian Gaming Commission to slow down the development of these games and make them far less attractive. Their own studies show that would cost close to $2 billion and eliminate 7,500 jobs.
Those proposed changes would have seriously affected gaming in Oklahoma.
Cole: Yes. Oklahoma has, I think, almost half or a little over half of the Class II games in the country, so that’s a big issue to us. But in terms of compacting, absolutely, I’m for it. But it needs to be done obviously at a pace that makes sense from a tribal standpoint.
From a tribal standpoint, how would you characterize the relationshsip with the state?
Cole: Our tribes have had a very good relationship with our state government, and that has not historically been the case. Our last two governors, from different parties, Frank Keating, a Republican and Brad Henry, a Democrat, our current governor, have both been very cooperative with tribes and have worked with them as opposed to against them. Those relationships have made an enormous difference in tribal economic development, not only in gaming but across the board.
What about at the federal level? What are the challenges for Native people when it comes to dealing with Washington?
Cole: Trust. The most important relationship any tribe can have is the trust relationship with the federal government. It needs to be defended and explained on a regular basis. And the gaming tribes, frankly, are usually bettered positioned to do that than, sadly, some other tribes which have great needs but limited resources. I think gaming has given a lot of tribes the resources to begin to correct the problems, and they can be awfully proud of how they’ve handled themselves. I always say [Indian gaming] is run like a private business, which it has to be in order to be successful. But its purposes are public, to improve the lives and well-being of tribal members and provide opportunities to Indian people.
It’s impossible to talk about Washington without mentioning the National Indian Gaming Association, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. What has it been like to work with them?
Cole: Oh, yes, we work with them hand in glove. They just do a tremendous job up here. What I appreciate about NIGA is that they play an educational role, and they really do work both sides of the aisle extremely well. If you are a friend it doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. If you have questions they are going to work with you to answer those questions and explain why Indian gaming, arguably, has been the most successful economic development program for Indian nations in the history of the country. Here in Washington you need to be able to convince the doubters, and they do all that very well.
The success of Indian gaming has given tribes a leg up in the political arena.
Cole: Indian people have tremendous needs, and the tribes that can afford continuous representation in Washington can carry the banner on a lot of issues, on everything from Indian health care to things like the Cobell decision. The gaming tribes are consistent supporters on things that are good for everybody - all tribes and all Native Americans, not just good for their individual members. So I think it is very important that we have tribes that have the wherewithal to be represented in and be active in Washington. Having Native Americans here is just so important for advancing the interests of Indian Country. br>
What do you hope the future will bring for Indian Country?
Cole: I guess, in a nutshell, it is that I don’t want the first Americans to be the “last” Americans anymore. Any kind of study you want to look at, whether it is health, lifespan, educational opportunities or economic opportunities, Native Americans are usually at the bottom of the list. That is a travesty and a crime.
Biography: Tom Cole is serving his third term in the U.S. House of Representatives as representative for Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District. He served as Oklahoma’s secretary of state from 1995 to 1999, when he led the state’s efforts to secure federal funds in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. A successful Republican political strategist, he founded Cole Hargrave Snodgrass and Associates and was the firm’s president from 1989 until his election to Congress in 2002. He has served as executive director and chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party and chief of staff of the Republican National Committee, and in 2007 was elected chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He holds a B.A. from Grinnell College in Iowa, an M.A. from Yale University and a Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma.