Tribal governments will no longer pay resort taxes on hotel stays in Norman, after city council voted unanimously on Tuesday night to change the rules.
Other government agencies have been exempt from hotel tax since voters approved it four decades ago. Tribal governments have been left out. Their exclusion came under scrutiny after hotel staff told Kiowa tribe officials that their tax-exempt status was not valid in Norman.
The situation has highlighted the complicated nature of tax laws in Oklahoma, where state and local tax rules do not always grant the same benefits to tribes as other governments.
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Jacob Tsotigh, who sits in the Kiowa legislature and lives in Norman, said the council’s vote not to impose hotel taxes on tribes recognizes tribes as the sovereign governments that they are. Governments spend money for the public good and generally do not impose themselves on each other when carrying out these tasks.
âWe all contribute to the well-being of the state of Oklahoma,â Tsotigh told the council. âWe all contribute to the progress of this state, of this city. “
Kiowa tribe in a rush to change
The Kiowa tribe often does business in Norman, which is located about 80 miles east of the tribe’s headquarters. Tsotigh’s legislative office is in Norman. Maya Torralba, director of the tribe’s language and culture revitalization program, also lives in the city.
In June, Torralba hosted a two-day meeting on the University of Oklahoma campus. The elders and staff of the tribe came together to adopt standards of competence for teaching the Kiowa language. The tribe has helped train teachers at all levels, from preschool to college, to keep the language alive.
The tribal leaders arranged for the people who attended the meeting to stay at the Embassy Suites in Norman. When an employee went to check, she noticed that taxes had been added to the tribe’s stay, Torralba said.
She said she was called to help settle the dispute after a hotel employee said, “You must take your letter (indicating the tribe’s tax-exempt status) and go back to your reservation. . ”
Torralba said she has never encountered a similar situation as other companies recognize the tribe’s tax-exempt status as a matter of routine. âI told him he insulted our elders, our staff and the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma,â she said.
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The Norman authorities apologize to the tribes
In the weeks that followed, the hotel manager apologized that the tribe’s tax exemption was offensively denied. The manager met with tribal chiefs and pledged to provide diversity training to staff.
Norman Mayor Breea Clark and several council members also apologized at Tuesday’s council meeting. Clark called the treatment unacceptable. She said she was unaware that the tribes were not already exempt from the city’s accommodation tax.
Kiowa leaders have pressured the council to add tribal governments to the list of organizations that do not have to pay the tax.
Council member Lee Hall said several residents have asked him to support the change. She noted that the council’s vote to change tax rules showed that public bodies can act quickly to fix problems soon after they emerge.
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Kricket Rhoads Connywerdy attended the council meeting with Torralba to represent the tribe and its language program. âWe are happy that the city recognizes our tribes,â said Rhoads Connywerdy, of Norman. âThe tribes appreciate the city and spend a lot of time and money there.
Council member Brandi Studley said she wanted to make it clear that tribal governments are welcome. âI hope you will do business with us in Norman again and continue to do business because your money matters,â she said.
Tsotigh said he has lived in Norman for 30 years and has learned that the city recognizes the rights of those who are under-represented.
âWe have 39 independent sovereign nations in the state of Oklahoma who have lived here for over 150 years,â he said. âWe need to recognize the value of this presence. “
Molly Young covers Indigenous Affairs for the USA Today Network’s Sunbelt Region of Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. Contact her at [email protected] or 405-347-3534.