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Oklahoma tribes boast billions in economic impact in new report

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Muscogee Nation
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The Eufaula Indian Health Center is located near Lake Eufaula. Operated by the Muscogee Nation, it provides a wide variety of health services, including Primary Care, Dental, Optometry, Audiology, Physical Therapy, Radiology, and many others to citizens of federally recognized tribes in rural eastern Oklahoma.

An organization that tracks tribal economic data released a new report Wednesday detailing a more than $15.6 billion impact to Oklahoma's economy, ranging from jobs, gaming exclusivity fees and healthcare contributions.

The report detailing the state of tribal economies was prepared by the Oklahoma Tribal Finance Consortium and shows an increase of more than $2.6 billion in economic activity from 2017 to 2019, the last time tribal economic data was collected.

Tribes employed more than 54,000 people and supported a total of 113,442 jobs for tribal citizens and non-citizens, accounting for more than $5.4 billion in wages and benefits to Oklahoma workers in 2019.

Tribes participating in the study include: Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town, Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe, Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Delaware Nation, Eastern Shawnee of Oklahoma, Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, Muscogee Nation, Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma, Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma and the Wichita Affiliated Tribes.

According to the report, tribes are making investments in local communities by leveraging federal transportation money to build roads and bridges. Jobs created by those construction projects have a short one-year impact. However, the new roads have a long term impact for tribal and non-tribal citizens who use them to drive to work or shop nearby. The report says this helps by increasing revenue for local businesses.

Healthcare

Another key investment tribal nations are making in the state is in healthcare. At a time when many hospitals in rural Oklahoma are closing or are short-staffed, tribal nations have continued to invest millions of dollars by building new facilities and providing care to both Native and non-Native systems. Tribes operate 45 healthcare facilities throughout the state, and tribal employers – government and business – provide health care to their workforce, which includes both Native and non-Native Oklahomans.

"Health care is one of the most significant pieces of infrastructure because it's one of the key components of the location decision," said Kyle Dean, who prepared the report. He's an associate professor of economics and the director for the Center for Native American and Urban Studies at Oklahoma City University.

In August 2020, Oklahoma State University and the Cherokee Nation established the first tribally affiliated college of medicine in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation launched with a class of 54 first year medical students.

According to the report, "when health care is provided to Native Americans at tribal health facilities, the entire cost of care is paid by the federal government, resulting in savings to the state. In 2019, tribes paid $232 million in Medicaid expenditures."

Tribal nations can capture third party dollars from programs like Medicaid and Medicare and receive their primary care through Indian Health Service. Savings to the state is around $86 million dollars.

Education

"What is surprising to me as an Oklahoman is the general lack of understanding or appreciation from the citizens and the state for the fact that we have such good partners that benefit all Oklahomans," said Dean.

In 2019, under the compacting agreement that allows tribes to operate Class III gaming operations, the exclusivity fees paid to the state totaled $148 million. More than $130 million of that went to the state's education fund.

On top of that, an additional $78.2 million dollars went to tribal scholarships and education programs. Another $20 million was donated to Oklahoma communities and universities. Cherokee Nation, for example, donates a portion of their tribal car tag fund to schools located within the Cherokee Nation reservation.

Matthew Morgan, the Chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, says the report is eye-opening in terms of tribal impact to the state of Oklahoma.

"I think it really helps tell that narrative, that story that tribal leaders have really been focused on over the last couple of years," said Morgan. "And that story really is that they are full partners in building up this state, no matter what industry you're talking about, what segments you're looking at."

Dean likened tribal nation investments to that of corporations who locate to the state, except that corporations have the option to move at any time, while tribes will remain in the state.

Tribes, he said, are having a positive impact in rural Oklahoma at a time when those communities are declining in other parts of the country.

"We couldn't luck into a better situation and especially in rural communities in Oklahoma than we have," said Dean. "And it's all just based upon this fluke of geography and the tribes being willing partners to provide the things that they do to these communities."

Dean, who has worked with tribal communities for more than 13 years, says that data collected for this report didn't surprise him, but other things did.

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
Oklahoma Public Media Exchange
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