“Killers of the Flower Moon” portrays the grief the Osage people felt when the federal government required that their children be sent to boarding schools, which were charged with assimilating them to the white man’s culture and religion. The movie filmed a memorable ceremony of the community grieving and burying a sacred pipe that symbolized the death of their culture and religious values.
It is a grief being refreshed by political clashes between the current administration in Oklahoma and the Native American tribes since the 2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling.
One relevant example of such conflict is the attempt by the current governor and state superintendent of public schools to ignore the Oklahoma Constitution’s explicit prohibition against government funding of religious schools by authorizing a grant of $26 million dollars to Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School. The language of the constitution’s prohibition was profoundly influenced by the work of the Native American tribes in Oklahoma.
In short, the Curtis Act of 1898 authorized Native Americans becoming U.S. citizens and thus subjecting them to federal law. It dissolved Indian Territory and abolished tribal governments beginning in 1906.
In 1905 and under the name of the State of Sequoyah, the Native American tribes in Oklahoma held a convention to draft a constitution for Indian Territory to apply for statehood separate from Oklahoma Territory. The tribes held a referendum on the Sequoyah Constitution in Indian Territory, where it received overwhelming support.
They sent a delegation of leaders to Washington, D.C. to petition for statehood, but Congress refused to divide Oklahoma into two separate states.
In 1906, when the Oklahoma State Constitutional Convention was held, the delegates elected the Principal Chief of the Muscogee Creek Nation as President and appointed the executive officers of the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Seminoles and another Muskogee delegate as vice presidents of the convention. The tribes’ influence on what became the Oklahoma Constitution of 1907 should be clear.
One significant difference between the Sequoyah Constitution and the Oklahoma Constitution is in the volume of language devoted to separating religion and government. The Native American grief over the federal government’s attempt to assimilate them to society by forcibly removing their children from their families and housing them in boarding schools run by religious authorities–who had little or no respect for the conscientious religious convictions of Native Americans–is worked out in the language of their constitution.
This is evident in Article I of the State of Sequoyah’s Bill of Rights, particularly in sections four through 7:
Section 4 reads in part: “All men have the natural and indefeasible right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences. … No person ought by any law, to be molested in his person or estate on account of his religious persuasion or profession; but this liberty of conscience shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, nor to justify practices inconsistent with the good order, peace, or safety of this State, or with the rights of others.”
Section 5 states: “No person can be compelled to erect, support or attend any place or system of worship, or to maintain or support any priest, minister, preacher, or teacher of any sect, church, creed, or denomination of religion; but if any person shall voluntarily make a contract for any such object, he shall be held to the performance of the same.”
Section 6 declares: “No money shall ever be taken from the public Treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister, or teacher thereof, as such. No preference shall be given to, nor any discrimination made against, any church sect, or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.”
Section 7 says: “No religious corporation can be established in this State, except such as may be created under general law for the purpose only of holding the title to such real estate as may be prescribed by law for church edifices, parsonages, cemeteries, and educational and eleemosynary institutions.”
The same can be said of Article VII and section 5 which explicitly states, “No religious, or other sect, or sects, shall ever be permitted to control any part of the school funds of the State, nor shall any funds be appropriated for the support of any sectarian school.”
The influence of Native American grief work in the writing of the Sequoyah Constitution on the Oklahoma State Constitution is precisely what is under assault by the influence of White Christian Nationalists on politics in Oklahoma. They have secured approval from a newly created and unelected virtual charter school board filled with political appointees to allocate state funding for a private, sectarian school, which clearly violates both the letter and the intent of the state constitution.
This is outlined in Article I, Section 5 and reads: “Provisions shall be made for the establishment and maintenance of a system of public schools, which shall be open to all the children of the state and free from sectarian control; and said schools shall always be conducted in English: Provided, that nothing herein shall preclude the teaching of other languages in said public schools.” It is also stated in Article II, Section 5: “No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.”
The Oklahoma officials who support religious public charter schools are not only ignoring the state’s constitution, but they’re also ignoring the will of the people. Despite their claims of doing what they were elected to do, there is ample proof that Oklahomans do not want taxpayer-funded religious education.
As recently as 2016, Oklahomans voted overwhelmingly to reject, by a 14-point margin (57% to 43%), a ballot initiative that would have amended the state constitution to allow public money to be spent on religious activities.
It is high time that all of Oklahoma’s elected officials start respecting both the wisdom of the framers of our state constitution and the rule of law that they swore an oath to uphold.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Prescott is one of the plaintiffs in Americans United for Separation of Church and State lawsuit challenging the state’s funding for Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.