Protecting Our Native Heritage and Communities

Congressman Tom Cole with members of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma

November is Native American Heritage Month
Guest Commentary

Published November 11, 2017

A key element of America’s constitution is the relationship our nation has had with Native Americans. Although there are moments in history where that relationship has been strained, the federal government today has been a usually reliable supporter of tribal sovereignty and self-government – a concept enshrined in the Constitution. Native Americans are the ‘First People’ of our land, and the federal government has a responsibility to support their sovereignty and promote their well-being as citizens of this country.

Representative Tom Cole

In recent years, Congress has put in place protections to help tribal communities with issues like healthcare, housing and crime. In 2013, I was proud to support the passage of the Violence Against Women Act for its provisions to help protect Native women and combat domestic violence on Indian reservations. This year, I am a cosponsor of the Special Diabetes Program for Indians Reauthorization Act. It is an important program has had a tremendous impact on Oklahoma tribes and has assisted in lowering the rates of diabetes in tribal communities. These two pieces of legislation are just a few examples of the priorities Congress is working to address for Native Americans. I am proud to put my support behind many more pieces of legislation aimed at helping Native communities, and I am also privileged and honored to be one of two Native Americans serving in Congress as a member of the Chickasaw Nation.

As a co-chair of the Native American Caucus, I am constantly working with my colleagues to push legislation that will improve the lives of Native Americans. We have worked in a bi-partisan, collaborative manner to advance initiatives like tribal healthcare and education, while protecting the interests of tribes in the areas of sovereignty and cultural preservation. Furthermore, the Native American Caucus serves as the first point of contact for National Congress of American Indians and Indian country when it deals with the Congress of the United States.

Oklahoma’s Native American community is diverse and strong. Eleven out of the thirty-nine tribes in the state have jurisdiction within the Fourth District. Tribal governments and communities are powerful influences on Oklahoma’s economy and culture. And for many Oklahomans, Native heritage is a point of great pride. I know my heritage as a member of the Chickasaw Nation has shaped and influenced my life in more ways than I can count. I would not have the opportunity to represent Native Americans on the federal level had it not been for my mother’s influence and her own illustrious political career. She was the first Native American woman elected to the Oklahoma State Senate, and I was inspired to run for office by her example of hard work and practical political views, as well as by her belief in and support for tribal sovereignty.

All across America, Native American tribes are striving to improve the lives of their members and their neighbors. Native American culture is rich in music, languages, art, political and military accomplishments, craft and much more that represent the best in our American tradition. Each day, not only in November, we are proud to display and celebrate Native American heritage and cherish its role in our diverse yet unique American story.

Tom Cole (R – Oklahoma) is one of two American Indians serving in the 115th Congress. Representative Cole is a tribal citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, based in Ada, Oklahoma.

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