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Celebrating Native American Heritage

November 3, 2014
Weekly Columns

At an early age, my mother taught me about the importance of my Native American heritage, and I have carried that with me throughout my life with a great sense of pride. As a member of the Chickasaw Nation, I am pleased that November marks a special time to nationally recognize the significant contributions, achievements and history of all tribes. There is certainly a lot to celebrate this month.

Growing up in Oklahoma, I was fortunate to live in a state brimming with tribal heritage, but I was also surrounded by family members who were actively involved in tribal affairs and who sought to preserve our unique history and culture. My great, great grandfather served as the clerk of the Chickasaw Supreme Court, and my great grandfather was the treasurer of the Chickasaw Nation. My great aunt Te Ata Thompson Fisher was a gifted actress, entertainer and Native American storyteller whose talent took her all over the world, including performances for famous dignitaries; her inspiring story will soon be told in a film that is currently in production. And I was especially proud that my mother, Helen Cole, was the first Native American woman ever elected the Oklahoma State Senate.

Over the course of American history, thousands more Native Americans have embraced their unique heritage and made significant contributions to society. The nation recently remembered that tribes have especially demonstrated outstanding valor on the battlefield. During World War I and World War II, members of several tribes played a critical role as code talkers, preventing sensitive wartime messages from being intercepted by the enemy. Last year in the U.S. Capitol, I was very pleased to participate in the ceremony that awarded 33 of those tribes with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, including 10 tribes from Oklahoma and three from the Fourth District.

Given my background, I consider it a privilege and honor to represent the interests and constitutionally-given rights of tribes in the U.S. House of Representatives. I am especially proud to be one of just two Native Americans serving in Congress, along with my Oklahoma colleague Congressman Markwayne Mullin. Our state is currently home to 39 sovereign tribes—11 of which are located right in the Fourth District. Today, tribal governments are helping drive the economy in Oklahoma, creating tens of thousands of jobs and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the state government.

Last year, I was pleased to see an important piece of legislation reauthorized that upholds tribal sovereignty. While not perfect, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) provided long overdue reforms for combating domestic violence and achieving justice in Indian Country.

November is certainly a month for observing, learning and celebrating the strong contributions of Native Americans. But we should remember that the 'First Americans' have contributed to and defended our blessed country each and every day of its long and distinguished history.