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OSU leads the way in tribal sovereignty with opening of Center for Sovereign Nations

In the heart of Cowboy country, tribal sovereignty has a new home at the Oklahoma State University Center for Sovereign Nations. Initially funded through a partnership between OSU and the Chickasaw Nation, it will be a home for Native American students and those wanting to learn more about the role of Indian Nations in Oklahoma.

“The center will serve students from the 39 sovereign nations in Oklahoma,” said OSU President Burns Hargis in a press release at the August opening ceremony. “As a land-grant institution, Oklahoma State University has an important role to play in creating initiatives to increase engagement and educational opportunities. We hope this center will not only strengthen relationships between the university and sovereign tribal nations, but will also increase the number of American Indian graduates from OSU.”

The center aims to increase the number of Native American graduates at Oklahoma State University, build partnerships with the state’s 39 federally recognized tribes and promote increased understanding of sovereignty as it pertains to Native Americans, their cultures and governments. Leading the center is Director Elizabeth Mee Payne, a graduate of Oklahoma University College of Law. Payne worked in private legal practice and was a corporate executive before coming to OSU more than five years ago. Her husband, John Chaney, is a Muscogee Creek citizen, a regent’s professor and director for OSU’s Center for American Indian Studies.

“Consistent with OSU’s land grant mission and with President Hargis’ support, we began reaching out to tribal leaders to focus our service to the nations in Oklahoma,” explained Payne. “President Hargis’ vision was supported by Provost Gary Sandefur, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, and Associate Provost Pamela Fry who lend their ongoing support and leadership to this center.”

The center’s mission is not an easy one despite its presence in a state where residents pride themselves on Oklahoma’s ties to Native America, but where comprehension of issues central to Indian Country are not well understood.

“Our center is charged with promoting an understanding of tribal sovereignty,” said Payne. “I had this notion that there was an awareness gap between what Oklahomans generally understand and what was historically and contemporaneously accurate when it comes to sovereignty. It’s my personal mission to close that gap through education, programming and by being an ambassador and advocate.”

Payne is effusive in emphasizing the role of tribal sovereignty as a foundational principle to all relations with Indian Nations in Oklahoma.

“Only after tribal sovereignty is understood, can the respect that is due be effectively paid to the nations and their citizens,” she said. “OSU’s Center for Sovereign Nations is charged with the mission of educating and advocating for that understanding.”

Payne says the center’s strategy will focus on engaging tribal leaders from across Oklahoma on how best to meet its goals.

“We’re a partnership center, so we serve our students with the guidance of our partners. We have an ongoing interest in understanding whether additional nations would want to partner with us because, while OSU has expertise in graduating students, the nations have expertise in higher education more broadly because they partner with a number of universities. That really allows us to become more effective in serving these nations and their students while they’re on our campus.”

Payne is a Riata Fellow teaching American Indian entrepreneurship at the university’s prestigious Spears School of Business. This background provides her an opportunity to forge connections between the entrepreneurial focus of her classroom and research work with the center’s mission of supporting Oklahoma’s tribal nations.

“We focus on programs that train American Indian entrepreneurs and those who want to partner with them,” she explained. “In the class we provide content and structure, but then I bring in people who have started their own businesses to show our students what is possible.”

Tying that mission into Indian Country, which in recent years has been home to a number of successful entrepreneurial initiatives like Chickasaw Nation Industries, Choctaw Defense and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Community Development Corporation, will likely be a future driver of economic development in Oklahoma.

Payne and center coordinator Sky Rogers, a Choctaw Citizen, run the day-to-day operations with the assistance of student staffers, all of whom are tribal citizens themselves. To learn more about the Center for Sovereign Nation’s mission and activities, visit https://sovnationcenter.okstate.edu/ or email sovnationcenter@okstate.edu for more information.