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OU associate vice president of tribal relations aims to strengthen ties between university, tribal communities

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Tana Fitzpatrick

Tana Fitzpatrick, OU's new associate vice president of tribal affairs on April 7.

A former Norman resident returns home after a law career to take on the position of OU associate vice president of tribal relations, elevating the importance of the university’s relationship with tribal communities. 

A replacement to the former tribal liaison position in the department of diversity, equity and inclusion, Tana Fitzpatrick’s role as the associate vice president of tribal relations was raised to the highest level within the university that, in turn, elevates the relationships the university forms with surrounding tribal nations. 

Welcoming Fitzpatrick into this position is an important step for the university, Brian Burkhart, interim director of the Native Nations Center and associate professor of philosophy, said. Not only does it positively influence relations that can be formed between the university and surrounding tribal nations, but it also creates a “more dynamic interaction” between the university and tribal nations than the former tribal liaison position could offer, he said. 

“There are things that are changing, you know, tribes are kind of growing more economically and politically powerful within the state,” Burkhart said. “Being able to recognize where they are and being able to intersect with them is really important for being successful.” 

Burkhart said he hopes this position will positively influence individuals across the university and state. He said that although there is still a lot of work to be done, this small step is rejuvenating for him as he continues to work with the university. 

“It was this sort of thing, sort of seeing the possibilities of the vision that was being put together, and what tribes are doing, what the university is doing — that has me excited enough to think (that) I could stay in this,” Burkhart said. “I could keep doing this for a while because this is really exciting. Personally, I really feel it, you know, directly. And I know that students and faculty and staff across the university do feel that (way) too.”

Fitzpatrick said although her position is new, she hopes to utilize it to form relationships, make connections and ultimately bring ideas for networking and research between the university and tribal nations. 

Heather Shotton, associate professor, chair in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and director of Indigenous Education Initiatives for the OU College of Education, said the elevation of the position honors the sovereign status of tribal nations in the state. 

“It's important to understand that tribal nations are sovereign nations,” Shotton said. “As such, they are leaders of sovereign nations, and we have to honor and respect that unique position and so just the same as we would with, say, the governor of the state or other elected officials and how we engage with and respect and honor the positions that they hold.”

Shotton also said the position speaks to how the community can better interact with neighboring tribes. Fitzpatrick’s new position exemplifies the major impact that tribes in Oklahoma have on the state in terms of economics and partnerships in health and research developments. 

A study produced by Kyle Dean, director of the Center for Native American and Urban Studies at Oklahoma City University, found that Oklahoma tribes employed 54,201 Oklahoma workers in 2019, paying out wages and benefits of $2.5 billion to Oklahomans. 

“It's important for us to have good relationships with the state as a state institution (and) tribal nations as sovereign nations,” Shotton said. “We have 39 tribal nations within the state. Having good strong relationships with tribal nations is equally important because those represent 39 tribal governments. It's important because of the indigenous student population on our campus. It's important because these are our neighbors.” 

When it came to choosing a person to form these important relationships Shotton, who also chaired the search committee for the position, said the most important factors included finding someone who understood the issues of sovereignty, who could develop a strong vision for how the university might engage in the work that it’s doing and who could enhance relationships with tribes and ultimately serve indigenous communities. 

“I think Tana brought all of that with her vast experience both as working with various tribes, working with the National Indian Gaming Association, working with the Library of Congress and also her ties and roots in Oklahoma, I think provided her with a particular background and knowledge of the nuances of tribal relationships and in the States,” Shotton said. 

Fitzpatrick joined OU March 21 from the Library of Congress, where she served as a specialist in natural resources policy for the Congressional Research Service, according to an OU News release. Norman being her hometown, Fitzpatrick is excited to work close to family and on the campus she grew up on. 

“Me and my sister would just, especially during summer breaks, we were just always running around in the library a lot before (it got) fancy now, but I remember it was very bare over there. So in a lot of ways, this is a homecoming for me, not just to Norman, but to the university itself,” Fitzpatrick said. 

Previously, Fitzpatrick has also worked in a variety of positions in the executive branch of the U.S. government, including senior counselor to the assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior, program examiner for the Office of Management and Budget in the Executive Office of the President and staff attorney for the National Indian Gaming Commission. She has also worked as a prosecutor and in-house counsel for tribal governments.

Coming back to Norman is not only a homecoming for Fitzpatrick, it is also an opportunity to do something she has a passion for. 

“Whenever I saw the position description, I (could) just feel it in my heart,” Fitzpatrick said. “I was like, ‘This just totally speaks to me. This is something that I would love to do, and (it) definitely helps that I have the experience that I have, working directly with tribes.’” 

As a member of the Crow Tribe of Montana and a Sioux, Ponca and Chickasaw descendent herself, Fitzpatrick said the creation of this position is incredibly personal to her. Especially given the impact tribes have on the state. 

“I just think it's really important to just recognize that tribes are here,” Fitzpatrick said. “They've always been here. And now they're really a great part of like what's happening in the state of Oklahoma. So I think that's important. And any way in which the university can engage with tribes on mutually beneficial subjects, let's do it. Let's work together.” 

Fitzpatrick said she is especially looking forward to the opportunities for research and connections between the tribal nations and OU faculty, students and staff. Although new to the position, Fitzpatrick said she has already been approached by individuals with ideas of how to better engage with tribes.

“I am so encouraged by that, and it makes me so happy because I can't wait to just, (though) I've already started in the role … know how to make those connections,” Fitzpatrick said. “I (am) very much a helper. I love to help people and that just really gets me going. So that's the most exciting thing to me right now (and) the fact that the University of Oklahoma is elevating tribal relations, really placing an emphasis on it by creating this position, I think is just what this state needs.”

news reporter

Taylor Jones is a journalism sophomore and news reporter at The Daily.

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