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Oklahoma State University

The official magazine of Oklahoma State University

Center for Sovereign Nations

Breaking New Ground

A new multidisciplinary center tackles important issues while providing opportunities for students


Elizabeth Mee Payne is director of the Center for Sovereign Nations. She teaches American Indian entrepreneurship and serves as the Riata Fellow for American Indian Entrepreneurship. 


Approach the Center for Sovereign Nations on the Oklahoma State University campus. You’ll hear students laughing or talking about homework. A group might be headed outside for a quick game of stickball. A lighthearted conversation about the newest viral video quickly turns to an intellectual discussion on the importance of understanding tribal sovereignty.

“The center was created as part of President Hargis’ vision for serving the 39 federally recognized tribal nations located in the state of Oklahoma,” says Elizabeth Mee Payne, director of the Center for Sovereign Nations. “The center’s collaborative model was made possible through the joint investment of OSU and the Chickasaw Nation.


We have a three-fold mission: sovereignty, students, and partnerships. We connect OSU faculty, staff, students, tribal nations, alumni and friends so we can all work together to promote sovereignty, student success and partnerships.”

Sovereignty tops the mission list. The center works to promote understanding, respect and exercise of tribal sovereignty.


“We host a Sovereignty Speaks© luncheon series in which we bring in speakers to help us learn more about tribal sovereignty,” Payne says. “We have several campus events that engage not only our leadership, but also faculty, staff and students, and those events are led by American Indian students. One example of this was our student art show, Sovereignty Is, which created dialogue around what it means to express and exercise tribal sovereignty. Sovereign tribal nations have the right to form and exercise government functions within the area of their tribal jurisdiction.”


In addition to directing the new center, Payne is a Riata Fellow for American Indian Entrepreneurship. She says she has 

relied on the leadership and ongoing commitment of Provost Gary Sandefur and Associate Provost Pamela Fry with assistance from Center Coordinator Sky Rogers, as well as guidance from partners in creating a successful program.


“The professionals and the staff here have helped struggling students overcome obstacles and make success a reality,” says Danny Wells, Chickasaw Nation’s liaison and OSU alumnus. “Several of the students also serve as ambassadors to tell others about the center and the benefits available in attending OSU.”


With the university serving as a “home away from home” for many during their college careers, the center welcomes and assists American Indian students from the time they arrive until graduation.


“We act as a home base,” Payne says. “We connect students with resources including student success programs, scholarship programs, and study abroad programs. We also connect them to student clubs and organization on campus.”

The ability to directly connect students with specific campus resources or programs is not a responsibility taken lightly in the center. Staff and student leaders consider the ability to connect students with resources to be a vital responsibility.

“We do the leg work and develop strategic relationships with other units on campus before the student has a problem, so we can pick up the phone and quickly make the connection a student might need,” says Sky Rogers, coordinator for the center. “We make sure we have strong relationships across campus so we can quickly navigate any problems that arise for our students.”


Center student leaders are citizens of several tribal nations including Chickasaw; Choctaw; Cherokee; Muscogee Creek; Seminole; Osage; Pawnee; Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara; and Cheyenne River Sioux. In addition to welcoming new students, center student leaders help spread the word about tribal sovereignty through campus events. Many students also take the opportunity to network and meet tribal leaders.


“You never know who is going to walk through the door here. Some of the times that I have just dropped by, I’ve been given opportunities to join events and network with speakers and leaders within our nations,” says Mason Two Crow, a biochemistry and molecular biology major.


At a Burgers with Burns event, President Burns Hargis and other faculty met American Indian students and discussed OSU’s commitment to student success.


“President Hargis, Provost Gary Sandefur and Associate Provost Pamela Fry wanted to join us at Taylor’s Dining Room 

in the College of Human Sciences to havburgers with our students,” Payne says. “We invited every American Indian 

student on campus, and President Hargis visited with every student that was there. He also made remarks about his personal commitment as well as the institution’s commitment to their student success — wanting them to not only be involved on campus, but also to complete their education and be able to graduate.”


Kylie Lester, a member of the Choctaw Nation who graduated in May with a degree in design, housing and merchandising, says the center offered her unique opportunities she wouldn’t have known about otherwise.


“We are all from different majors, sororities, fraternities and organizations, but I’ve met some of my best friends here that I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” Lester says. “Being able to connect back with our nations is great. I was introduced to more financial opportunities just this past semester that I hadn’t been aware of the whole time I had been on campus. There are a lot of eye-opening opportunities for a student who visits the center.”


But the center is more than a place to relax and hang out between classes — it is about promoting sovereignty and the tribes, even for students.


“This isn’t a diversity quota thing,” says Carson Dakota Turner, an OSUTeach physics major. “The center is about promoting the individual student, and by doing so, promoting the tribes they are representing. And by the tribes coming here and addressing the issues of education and things like that, we are pushing the envelope of how much the tribes can do — not only for themselves and each other and the state of Oklahoma, but also for all other institutions in the country.”


Partnering with tribal nations, other organizations and specific areas of the university is the third part of the center’s mission. The center aims to engage students with these partners and to increase the working partnerships between OSU and the 39 federally recognized tribal nations in Oklahoma.


“For example, working with Dr. Kenneth Sewell, OSU vice president of research, and Dr. Ron Van Den Bussche, associate vice president for research, the center hosted a luncheon during OSU Research Week. We invited members of the OSU Institutional Review Board to join Dr. Sohail Khan, director of health research and co-director, Cherokee Nation IRB, for a presentation about the best practices for conducting research in Oklahoma,” Payne says.


Following the luncheon, leaders of OSU IRB held roundtable discussions with leaders of Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw Nation IRBs. As a result, all present agreed to collaborate in the development of a revised set of research protocols, which will include greater tribal nation input. This is an example of a partnership that the center had the pleasure of facilitating.”


The center has also connected students with these partnerships.Students stopping by the Center for Sovereign Nations include Ashley Hunnicutt, Carson Turner and Ova Fofah.



“One of the issues we continue to hear from the sovereign tribal nations that we serve is that they have a lot of tribally owned land, and they want to have effective resource plans for that land. The center has been able to facilitate new project opportunities amongst our partners in the OSU Environmental Science Graduate Program and our partners in DASNR [Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources] and these tribes.


“These projects capitalize on OSU’s areas of expertise as well as providing American Indian undergraduate students with the opportunity to experience working with tribal nations. Often these projects result in student interest in going back to work for their tribal nation,” Payne says.


The alignment between OSU’s land grant mission and the center’s three-fold mission creates an environment which promotes the success of American Indian students at OSU and around the state.


“I think that having the center is a huge milestone because it is something that has never been seen at Oklahoma State,” says Masheli Billy, aerospace administrations and operations major. “It is something that has never been seen at other universities in Oklahoma. It is a huge milestone for native people and for native youth to become more involved in higher education.”


At the first year anniversary birthday bash, Choctaw Nation Director of Public Policy Sara Jane Smallwood, an OSU alumna, announced that the Choctaw Nation has officially become a second partner for the center.


The Choctaw Nation has been a key supporter of OSU’s Center for American Indian Studies, which shares the space in Life Sciences East Suite 104 with the Center for Sovereign Nations. Many leaders and other dignitaries attended the anniversary event including Muscogee Creek Nation Principal Chief James Floyd, and Seminole Nation Chief Leonard Harjo. Hargis issued an invitation to all the sovereign nations in Oklahoma to join the center in helping to promote student success, including student engagement, retention and graduation.


“We are hopeful of spreading the knowledge of sovereignty in Oklahoma and beyond, and supporting our students here,”

Smallwood says.


Native American Student Association Crowns Miss American Indian OSU Megan Baker


Cherokee Nation citizen Megan Baker, a sophomore psychology student, is serving as the 2016 Miss American Indian OSU. With the title comes responsibility, and Baker says earning the crown has led her to countless opportunities.


The Locust Grove, Oklahoma, native will promote awareness of domestic violence among teens on-and off-campus; serve as an officer for the Native American Student Association; and represent the university at various events throughout the state.


“I believe the duties include being a good representative of a strong and intelligent Native American woman, and to help show people what it means to be a Native American because we are very misrepresented in most of the mainstream culture and that needs to change,” Baker says.


Baker was crowned by the Native American Student Association and its sponsoring department, the Center for Sovereign Nations. NASA provides opportunities for students to participate in cultural activities across the campus. She has helped with the annual powwow and Indian taco sales, which raise funds for different programs.


For the pageant, Baker sang the Cherokee Comfort Song and described the traditional regalia that she wore throughout the competition.


“The regalia is an 18th century outfit that traditionally would have been made out of animal hides,” Baker says. “However, it was adapted because Cherokee women would have worn the top quite differently. Everything was made out of wool except the feather cape that Terri Fields and her daughter Cierra Fields spent hours making for me. The leggings were also created by Terri and beaded with my traditional name on it, Uhwoduhi, which means Beautiful. The moccasins were black leather, and all the cornbead necklaces were made by me.”


The Cherokee Comfort Song is about the many children who were orphaned on the Trail of Tears during American Indian removal from their homelands to Oklahoma.


“The song itself is a prayer of sorts about seeking comfort in the Lord as you go through the challenges in life,” Baker says. “I learned the song in Cherokee by memorization. It is important to learn about our heritage because it helps give a sense of identity and togetherness … it feels like I am finding more about myself as I learn of my heritage.”


As a psychology student at OSU, she hopes to become a criminal profiler and work with the FBI.


“I have always been interested in the human mind and addicted to shows about true crime, so when I realized that I could be the one solving puzzles and helping people, I was so excited to make it my major,” Baker says.





OSU Student Tori Coates Named 2016 Udall Scholar


Choctaw Nation citizen Tori Coates is the only Udall Scholar from Oklahoma for 2016. She was selected as one of 60 out of 482 undergraduate students nationwide. Coates joins a select group of 15 previous OSU Udall Scholars, recognized by the Office of Scholar Development and Undergraduate Research.


The Udall Scholarship honors the legacies of Morris Udall and Stewart Udall, whose careers had a significant impact on American Indian self-governance, health care, and the stewardship of public lands and natural resources. The program promotes finding solutions to some of the most complex and critical issues of modern society, Coates says.


“It is rare to find a scholarship that centers on your culture, experience and passions, but that is exactly what the Udall Foundation does,” Coates says.


Her honor is in the category of tribal public policy. The Westville, Oklahoma, native is studying management, with a human resource option, and is minoring in American Indian studies. Through her interest in Native American issues, and particularly the health care of native children, Coates has conducted research on the Indian Child Welfare Act and the impact displaced native youth have on the wellness of Native Americans. In 2015, she interned with the Social Security Administration in Washington, D.C., where she worked on a project with the senior adviser for tribal children at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


“The scholarship committee asks you to research and write about a speech or piece of legislation written by Representative Morris or Stewart Udall,” Coates says. “As I began researching legislation published by the congressmen, I learned that Morris Udall had written the Indian Child Welfare Act. After the death of her parents, my mother, Twila Wynoka Blue, was adopted under the ICWA at age 12. Learning about ICWA sparked my intellectual curiosity over a multiple of other factors that affect Native American children in the foster care and adoption process, and I have spent the last two years of my undergraduate career soaking up as much information as possible on the subject.”


Coates plans to attend law school and specialize in American Indian law. This will allow her to represent Native American children in the foster care and adoption process, and write tribal public policy to address the needs of native children, she says.


On the OSU campus, Coates served as president of the Residence Hall Association. She was a member of the founding team that started “Helping Hands and Meal Plans,” which encourages students to use the unused portions of their meal plans to purchase items to donate to local charities. The program raises approximately $30,000 per year to benefit Oklahoma families.


A member of the Honors College, Coates has an outstanding academic record. She has also received awards from the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. Elizabeth Mee Payne, director of the Center for Sovereign Nations, serves as the principal investigator for the Johnson Scholarship Foundation grant to OSU business students.



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Uploaded on September 1, 2016


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