US politics ‘off the reservation’ in Oklahoma

Signs of the 2012 presidential race are rare along interstates dotted with pit stops, Indian casinos and tribal lands.

Finding someone who bothers to keep up with national political developments in this election season is not easy in a vast swath of the “Sooner State”.

In Kay County just across the border from Kansas, locals and visitors alike are sooner spinning slot machines than pulling the ballot box lever.

At Casey’s convenience store just off the main north-south highway, a nonchalant young woman tells me how no one in the area cares for national politics because they’re too far from the centres of power. She says people only start taking an interest in such things as you travel closer to Oklahoma City.

Her co-worker, a Native American man in his mid-20’s, smiles wide enough to show his gums. “I’m just a country boy,” he says, tilting his backwards trucker hat. “I don’t know about anything like that.” He then pronounces, authentically, the name of his Tonkawa tribe, which also gave its name to the closest big town: “Toohhn-kaaah-wa”.

No booze, but gambling

Only about half of Kay County’s 46,562 population is registered to vote, and of those who voted in 2008, 29 per cent chose Obama.

I was looking for some Native Americans with whom to discuss the presidential election. So I decided to visit the Tonkawa Indian community centre, but it’s closed Saturdays. I checked the indoor pool next door, and found an office clerk, 18-year-old named Tommi, with coarse jet-black hair, eager eyes and a grey Oklahoma hooded sweatshirt.

The business administration freshman at Northern Oklahoma College tells me she hasn’t yet registered to vote. She also struggles to remember the Republican candidate’s name. So I switch topics, and she soon bluntly tells me – in contrast to the Indian stereotypes – she doesn’t drink alcohol or bet money. Tommi pleasantly directs me to the casino just across the street if I want to try talking politics with other Tonkawa members.

I fit in one last question about Indian car identification before walking back outside. “My dad is Ponca, and my mom is Tonkawa,” she says. “That’s why I have the Ponca licence plate.”

I cross the street to the Tonkawa Indian Casino, and judging by the size of the billboards advertising it, I had expected a massive facility in which gamblers would easily get lost. But the building seemed too small – even for a small town on a reservation. But that was my observation before I found out how many dozen casinos operate across the state.

Tonkawa casino politics

Inside the den of vice, a non-Indian woman at the front counter named Jamie is a nursing student at nearby college. She says her government course last year was her hardest. I ask if most of her neighbours in Ponca City – about 15 minutes east – support Obama or Romney.

She replies, “I think it’s Romney. Or, maybe it’s Obama. I’m not sure which one.” In between handing a motley mix of casino customers their shiny new membership cards, she tells me she eventually wants to leave northern Oklahoma, but she doesn’t know where to.

Then I meet Toni and Rick, who come to the casino as a married couple but don’t gamble together. Toni, a Native American from Montana, says she caps her spending at $100 per outing. I ask Rick, a red-bearded line technician at a cable-laying firm in the small city of Enid, if he supports the current president.

He tells me he “sure does”, and that he often gets into arguments with his “rich customers” who support Romney for his stance on lowering taxes for the wealthy. But Rick hasn’t switched his voter registration to his new address.

Next I meet David, a local Tonkawa who lives on the reservation and frequents the casino every day with his girlfriend, who belongs to the Choctaw tribe. The couple appear to have some substance abuse issues.

David tells me that he won about $1,000 two days in a row last week, even though he often loses big as well. He also jokes that the losses might be offset by the quarterly payout that he receives from his tribe, which by federal law also shares a chunk of gaming revenue with the state.

Since his significant other was bored from watching him play “Irish Gold” and wanted to go, I didn’t press him. He said he supported Obama but wasn’t in the habit of voting.

Indian gaming facilities

I had no choice but to give up asking about politics, and then did some research on Indian gaming in Oklahoma. Here’s what I dug up:

The state has a staggering 114 casinos operated by 33 local Indian tribes that are scattered across the Great Plains landscape near the main freeways.

There are actually more Indian gaming facilities in Oklahoma than in any other US state, with an average ratio of over three establishments per Indian group. And the industry is said to be relatively recession-proof, having weathered the 2008 crisis better than gaming in other states such as Connecticut, wrote University of Oklahoma professor Thaddieus Conner in the Indigenous Policy Journal.

Although Indians of yesteryear possessed most of the Oklahoma land used to profit today from oil, gas, cattle and crops – casinos are raking in the cash for them these days.

With their 60,000 gaming devices, Oklahoma’s Indian tribes generate an estimated $3.5bn per year, second in the country for total Indian gaming revenues after California.

Gaming is around two per cent of Oklahoma’s economy, and the casinos generate almost $100m in revenues to the state per year, just under the amount contributed by the lottery and racetracks combined, according to David Qualls, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.

The Native American gaming industry has brought jobs and tourists to reservations, and increased tribal independence from federal welfare assistance by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

State of ‘red people’

As for the Tonkawa, they are a small tribe who nearly became extinct in 1921 with only 34 members. Now there are about 600, but their language unfortunately disappeared.

Most live in the town of Fort Oakland adjacent to the casino on the Tonkawa Tribal Reserve, where the per capita income is just over $5,000.

Around 10 per cent of the Oklahoma’s population is of American Indian origin, mostly Cherokee – and is the second-largest in the country.

The state’s name itself comes from the Choctaw tribe’s words for “red people” – okla humma – and two dozen Native American languages are still spoken there.

But this year it looks like neither “Obama” nor “Romney” is being pronounced much in those tribal tongues.

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