Tribal burn bans not issued before departure.
By Edward F. Mouss II
On August 2, 2012, Principal Chief George Tiger issued Executive Order No.12-05 declaring a State of Emergency for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation “due to extreme heat, drought , and fire conditions existing in the boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation…”. The order directed the Nation’s Emergency Response Team to execute the tribal government’s emergency plan to help tribal citizens “whenever necessary” during the State of Emergency and to “protect the lives of our people.”
The emergency declaration came three days after Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin declared a State of Emergency for the state. Just one day after declaring the State of Emergency, Tiger along with a contingent of seven National Council members, including National Speaker Sam Alexander and 2nd Speaker Robert Hufft, and an unknown number of tribal employees left Oklahoma for California to attend a political gathering.
The departure came on August 3, 2012, the same day that Governor Fallin issued a statewide burn ban due to extreme fire dangers across Oklahoma. During that same day, a Tribal Town Radio reporter, went to the Creek Capital Complex to inquire about tribal burn bans and obtain documentation pertaining to the State of Emergency. Approximately five of the six employees who were asked about tribal burns bans were unaware that the tribe even needed to issue burn bans. Most of the employees asked, referred to the State’s burn bans and the tribe’s marquee even displayed a burn ban notice. Offices that were visited that day included the Principal Chief’s Office, the National Council office and the Light Horse police station.
Muscogee (Creek) Principal Chief George Tiger didn’t issue burn bans until August 4, 2012. The tribal burn bans were purportedly issued from California. The M(C)CC criticized the Principal Chief for leaving the state for political reasons after declaring a State of Emergency. The Tiger administration was also criticized for not announcing the State of Emergency to the Creek public until days later and for not issuing burn bans in an expedient fashion. Tiger subsequently issued a statement on Facebook where he was appearing to defend his decision to leave the state to attend a “speaking commitment” after declaring the emergency. Tiger said, among other things, that one reason that he did not issue burn bans was because “…it allowed us at Muscogee Creek Nation the opportunity to further monitor the situation and conditions.”
According to a memorandum sent from the MCN Emergency Management Coordinator James Nichols, the MCN Division of Community & Human Services would “act as liaison between all departments during this State of Emergency…”. The M(C)CC contacted the Director of the MCN Division of Community & Human Services Cherrah Ridge through Facebook prior to her departure to attend the California gathering on August 3, 2012. Ridge was asked if she would be leaving Oklahoma during the State of Emergency. Ridge replied,”Yes I will be attending the California Creeks Association meeting. My flight leaves in about an hour.” Ridge was then able to confirm that no burn bans had been issued for tribal lands. Ridge sent notices about the State of Emergency throughout the weekend from her Facebook account. The M(C)CC had earlier advised Ridge through Facebook that her messages would be better suited for the tribes government website. Facebook is not considered a viable way for a government to communicate to the public exclusively during a State of Emergency since there are restrictions as to who can actually see the information.
The following Monday after the MCN contingent returned from California the tribe’s government-controlled news media reported that the tribe had now begun to help with disaster relief efforts. The M(C)CC again went to the Creek Capital Complex to ask if burn bans had been issued. The National Council office still had no new information about tribal burn bans though the Principal chief had reportedly issued burn bans late in the evening on the 4th of August. The Light Horse office front desk staff initially referred to the state burns bans again before an unnamed plain clothes officer stated that burn bans had been issued on August 3, 2012, a day before they were actually issued.
On August 8, 2012, an article in the Henryetta Free Lance reported that Principal Chief Tiger had “joined forces” with numerous other organizations in northeastern Oklahoma due to the wild fires in Creek county. Tiger gave an explanation as to why he waited to issue burn bans. “We didn’t just want to arbitrarily make a quick decision on a burn ban, even though the state had one”, Tiger explained.
The State of Oklahoma has statutory guidelines set in place in the invent that the state or county governments need to issue burn bans. According to the state’s county Burn Ban Guidelines, “Prior to passage of a burn-ban resolution, the Board [of County Commissioners] must declare the existence of extreme fire danger.” The State of Oklahoma enacted laws that require officials to gather information and scientific data from agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service before they issue burn bans. The State of Oklahoma also has other criteria for issuing burn bans that are governed by the Burn Ban Law from the Oklahoma Forestry Code (Statutory Reference: O.S. § 16-26).
There are no known laws for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation that govern Forestry Services, burn bans or fire management. Some estimates say that individually owned restricted or trust lands cover a land base three to four times larger than the land base that the tribal government owns. These estimates show a immense need for these types of laws. Since the beginning of 2012, the National council has held eight emergency sessions according to the National Council’s website. None of which rose to the level of the emergency of the weekend of August 3, 2012. Although the National Council reportedly had enough members to reach a quorum, it is unknown who would call an emergency meeting without the National Speaker or 2nd Speaker present to do so.
The Gathering of California’s Muscogee (Creek) Nation Association has become an annual event for the Muscogee (Creek) government. Until recent years, little information was disseminated as to where the funding for the trip was coming from. It is now known that the Muscogee (Creek) government has been using tribal funds to pay for the travel expenses of employees to attend the event and provide services. Sources say as many as 30-40 tribal employees have been flown out to Anaheim, CA, to provide services for this one-day event. This type of service is not afforded to any other group of Creeks anywhere else in the United States.
Figures from the proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget for the Creek Nation suggest that $1200 – $1500 was budgeted per employee. Some of the departments requested money for the trip under their “Proposed Training List” though the event is billed as a meeting “to learn about programs available to out-of-state citizens.” In 2011, the event was literally a political candidates forum with tribal services provided by tribal government employees.
It is commonly known that a large portion of absentee votes cast in Muscogee (Creek) elections come from California.
Below is a list of the known elected officials who left Oklahoma during the State of Emergency to attend the gathering.
- Principal Chief George Tiger – Creek District
- National Speaker Sam Alexander – Tulsa District
- 2nd Speaker Robert Hufft – Tulsa District
- David Hill – Creek District
- Franklin Coachman – Okfuskee District
- Kara Medina – Tulsa District
- Darrell Proctor – McIntosh District
- Lena Wind – Okfuskee District