OKLAHOMA CITY – Guests from several Native American tribes were in attendance recently for this legislative session’s first meeting of the Oklahoma House of Representatives’ Native American Caucus.
During the meeting, it was announced that State Rep. Ken Luttrell (R-Ponca City) will serve as co-chair of the caucus this year alongside Rep. Collin Walke (D-Oklahoma City).
“I thank the members and our tribal friends for the trust they have placed in me to serve in this capacity,” Luttrell said. “I look forward to working with Rep. Walke and the caucus as we develop and promote policy that is beneficial to the tribal nations, Oklahoma and all citizens.”
Luttrell previously served on the executive board of the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators. He represents numerous tribes in his district and is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation.
Walke said, “I’m honored to serve with Rep. Luttrell for the Native American Caucus. There are many issues affecting tribal members in our state, and I look forward to working collaboratively with them as we move this state forward.”
Walke is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation.
Former State Rep. Lisa Billy, a Chickasaw Tribal councilwoman, was a founding member of the House Native American Caucus, which was formed during her first term in office in 2006. She said she and former Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, a representative of the Citizen Pottawatomie Nation, started the caucus after brainstorming ways to bring a voice for tribal people together with state lawmakers.
“There was really no voice at the time and no model for us to rely on,” Billy said. “The national Native American Caucus was not even in existence at the time.”
She said she and Wesselhoft started having conversations with other Native American legislators at national gatherings and came together with the goal of bringing tribal leaders together with elected leaders at the state Capitol. She said their first big idea was to host a large reception, inviting every tribal leader to attend. She said the event turned out to be a wonderful success and gained lots of support from the tribes and lawmakers.
Former Rep. Shane Jett soon reached out asking if he could help. Newspaper coverage of the caucus also helped gain attention.
The caucus soon realized that many members of the Legislature at the time did not know which tribal nations their legislative districts fell within. She and other caucus members worked with House staff to create GIS maps that showed tribal nation boundaries intersecting with House and Senate district boundaries. They also worked to connect each legislator with the tribal leaders in their districts.
Billy said an early goal of the House Native American Caucus was to make sure it was bipartisan.
“Tribal issues are not going to be partisan necessarily,” she said. “We felt we needed to have a voice from both sides.”
She said she was excited this year to see a return to a bipartisan leadership for the caucus.
She also is excited Rep. Luttrell was chosen to serve as a co-chair as she has worked with him in the Legislature in the past.
“Ken has the drive and always has had a very passionate voice,” Billy said. “I’m thrilled he’s willing to share his passion and his experience. He wants what is best for people, and that’s what you want in a leader.”
Billy said while she has not yet had the opportunity to work with Rep. Walke, she appreciates his determination and his willingness to represent tribal members in their legislative concerns.
Billy said she wants to see the House Native American Caucus continue having conversations about issues that affect the tribes in Oklahoma.
“When we communicate and work together, we can do better,” she said. “It’s about bringing unity.”
That is a goal Luttrell and Walke say they share.