Kevin Stitt made history Tuesday night. Unless you happen to stay up on the Native American press, you likely didn’t hear much about it.
The newly elected Republican governor of Oklahoma’s campaign did not garner much national attention. There was no hubbub over his candidacy, or what it meant for the Sooner State, or for Native Americans across the nation. But regardless of how the national media or even the candidate viewed the campaign, there is no getting around the fact that Stitt—a citizen of Cherokee Nation as a descendant of his great-grandfather, Robert Dawson—is the first Native American governor in United States history.
On its face, this should be a good thing, just as the historic victories by Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland—the pair became the first Native women elected to Congress on Tuesday—felt like an empowering step forward. And yet, with Stitt, the same feelings don’t bubble up in my chest, for reasons rooted in some fairly obvious ideological differences.
Among the policy stances that ushered Stitt into office by a comfortable 12-point margin: He is brazenly anti-abortion, opposes Medicaid expansion, is a proud NRA member, and has a hard-on for line-item budgets. Stitt jumped into politics after building a multi-million dollar fortune in the mortgage business, from which he lent himself nearly half his entire campaign war chest in the lead-up to his primary win over Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. On his website, Stitt claims he wants to increase teacher pay—Oklahoma teachers went on strike this year to protest abysmal statewide education funding—but then criticized a recent tax increase to address that very issue. And then, of course, there’s the endorsement from President Donald Trump that Stitt happily touted time and again in the final stretch of the campaign; in August, he went as far as to attack Cornett for not hopping on the Trump train early enough.
He is, in a nutshell, a textbook conservative Republican in a red state. And yet, to me, and thousands of other tribal members interested in injecting long-muted Native voices into the machine of American politics, he is simultaneously a beacon of opportunity, a history-maker whose name will go down in the annals of history as the first Native governor. Those two realities are difficult to reconcile, but they exist all the same, whether I like the man’s politics or not.
One thing I’ve realized in my short time paying far too much attention to Southern and Native politics is that history doesn’t always work out quite as cleanly as folks might hope. A prime example of this, during the 2018 election cycle, was Paulette Jordan.
If you listened to the national profiles, Jordan was a once-in-a-generation gubernatorial candidate that was Really Going To Change the politics of Idaho. The New York Times, The Guardian, and BuzzFeed all wrote fawning profiles that glossed over the growing cracks in her campaign to focus on the headline-grabbing history—hell, Splinter even flew me out to Idaho to profile the charismatic Coeur D’Alene tribal member in the weeks leading up to the election.
Not only did Jordan embrace the media attention, she regularly used her tribal and familial connections to the land where the state of Idaho now lies as a tactic on the campaign trail. I attended the first debate between her and Republican opponent Brad Little, and Jordan mentioned her tribal heritage multiple times; in response to an audience question about what makes a real Idahoan, she smiled and joked that, technically, she is a 3,000th generation Idahoan, eliciting laughs from the crowd. She was a very real candidate, even in Idaho, to the point where national reactions to her 22-point loss weren’t of resounding defeat but echoes of she’ll be back.
But anyone that was listening to voices that didn’t come from inside Jordan’s campaign or the audience at her rallies knew that by September, she had no shot come Election Day. As I laid out in my piece, some of these reasons were due to the stark realities of running as a Democrat in a state as loyally Republican as Idaho, but others had to do with fundamental flaws that existed in the makeup of her staff, which led to campaign and financial blunders. But because she fit the part from a progressive policy standpoint, and because she was willing to lean into her potential spot in the history books, she was a source of far more hope and inspiration than nearly any other Native candidate that ran this year. As a result, media outlets gladly provided glowing coverage and trumpeted her candidacy from coast-to-coast.
Stitt, on the other hand, wasn’t quite a sure-fire lock, but he certainly had a leg-up to claim the highest office in Oklahoma. While the governorship has flipped between Democrats and Republicans fairly stably for the past three decades—with the last three governors all serving for two terms before getting the Vaudeville hook—Oklahoma overwhelmingly voted for the GOP candidates on Tuesday, and few gave his opponent, Democrat Drew Edmondson, much of a shot.
And so, with the advantage of registered voters on his side, Stitt made almost no mention of the history he’d make, save for in an interview with Muskogee Politico back in June, as pointed out by Indianz.com. He said in that interview:
As a registered Cherokee, I know first-hand what a tremendous benefit the tribes have been to our state, creating tens of thousands of jobs, expanding health care options in rural Oklahoma, and more. When we enter negotiations, I will be looking at what is market (comparable with states around us) with tribal contracts and at what is in the best interest of the entire state of Oklahoma.
In his role as governor, Stitt will not only be in charge of the state with the second-largest Native population in the country, he will be in charge of negotiating a gaming compact before it expires in 2020. He will also be looked to for leadership when, come the end of this month, the Supreme Court hears Carpenter v. Murphy, a case concerning the boundaries of the Creek Nation’s reservation.
It’s unclear whether he will provide a voice rooted in respect for tribal sovereignty or not, in these issues or any others, mainly because he has little prior political experience, but also because he just hasn’t publicly spoken to these issues much at all. And therein lies a key distinction between Stitt and Davids, Haaland, or Jordan, as well the conflict brewing among progressive Natives. It’s not so different from the draining feeling I get when I remind myself that, before Tuesday, there were only two Native members of Congress–Oklahoma Republicans Markwayne Mullin and Tom Cole—at all.
The opportunity to be represented, as a minority citizen, at the highest levels of government in a two-party system like America’s is not one you pass on. As commenters here love to remind me, perfect is the enemy of good, and in criticizing a Native elected official I’m certain will push for measures that make me grind my teeth, I feel a pang urging me to ease up, to enjoy the fact that we are no longer segregated and utterly forgotten, that Natives are finally being seen as people with something to offer in national politics and to win, regardless of whether they wave their Native identity as a flag or relegate it to a toss-off remark in a single interview. It’s the same pang I felt when I took on Elizabeth Warren’s attempt to co-opt our history—why attack someone that could ultimately serve as a stepping stone forward, either for our country or Indian Country?
I know it in my bones that Stitt, over the course of his governorship, will push conservative, regressive policies that hurt Oklahoma residents who need schools and affordable healthcare. And that’s why it’s important (for me, at least) to remember that with the privilege of being among the first generations to break into mainstream American culture and society comes the responsibility for Native citizens to remind the folks that have long been embedded in said culture and society that we are not a single-minded group of people. For all the good I’m sure Haaland and Davids will do in D.C., and all the positive pieces that are published as a result, it will be just as important to stay on the heels of those of us that are pointed in the opposite direction. And in the case of Kevin Stitt, I am positive of two things: I am proud, regardless of his politics, to know that a Native person finally climbed to the top of a state government, and that I will be among the crowd railing against him if and when he tries to drag Oklahoma backwards, because that is my privilege, and it I’ll be damned if it’s squandered.