American Indian leaders, citing a desire to preserve their native languages, urged state lawmakers Thursday to defeat "English only" legislation that would declare English Oklahoma's official language.
In a letter to lawmakers, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith said the measure, approved on Wednesday by the House General Government and Transportation Committee, "is really just an ugly symbol of intolerance."
"The kindhearted people of Oklahoma do not need to watch politicians create an artificial divide in our state," said Smith, who voiced opposition to the bill before committee members voted 9-7 to send it to the House floor for a vote.
"Our great state has been blessed with more than 35 Indian nations, each of which has a unique culture," Smith said. "Part of that culture comes from the richness of native languages, which have been spoken here for centuries before Oklahoma became a state."
In a separate statement, George Tiger, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and chairman of the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma, said tribal governments support school language preservation programs that could be harmed by the measure.
"It is sad that in 2007, even as the state makes plans to celebrate its centennial year, that people of color are still being targeted for using their language," Tiger said. "It seems like we're taking steps backward."
Meanwhile, the bill's author, Rep. George Faught, R-Muskogee, said he is working with other lawmakers, including members of the Legislature's Native American Caucus, to resolve concerns.
"We're exploring that right now," Faught said. "I've obviously walked into a hornet's nest. I didn't realize this was going to be this heated.
"What concerns me now is the lines have been drawn, maybe a little prematurely and unfairly. I hope this thing will simmer down a little bit," Faught said.
Among other things, the measure would require official state business to be conducted in English and official documents, regulations, publications and meetings to be in English.
Faught said the bill could eventually end bilingual driver's license tests and other state government documents.
The bill also says it should not be used to discourage the use of or prevent the study or development of American Indian languages.
"I saw it as a pretty simple thing," Faught said. "There may be some maneuvering we can do to maybe solve some of the problems."
But lawmakers of Indian heritage said they will work to defeat the measure. It has not been scheduled for a hearing on the House floor.
"I'm embarrassed to be a part of a Legislature that takes part in legislation like this," said Rep. Jerry McPeak, D-Warner, a member of the Creek tribe. "I am sure that this piece of legislation is nothing more than political fluff, designed to scare people."
Rep. Scott BigHorse, D-Pawhuska, said the measure would have a negative impact on the state's economy. Big Horse is affiliated with the Osage Tribe.
"It would decrease tourism and send a message to everyone outside the state that Oklahoma does not embrace diversity," BigHorse said.