Tribal Vehicle Tags Unique to Oklahoma

By Robert J. Korpella

First posted on 08-01-2007

You have probably seen them on Ozarks highways and you are certain to have seen them if you’ve traveled through Oklahoma. American Indian tribal vehicle tags like those for the Cherokee Nation, the Osage Nation and others are prevalent in the state, the only one in which they are issued. And the number being issued is increasing.

For example, the Osage Nation, based in Pawhuska, Oklahoma – just west of Bartlesville – has issued about 10,000, over two and a half times more than they distributed just five years ago. The Cherokee Nation, the state’s largest tribal nation, has sold 253,832 tags since 2001, averaging around 40,000 per year.

In 1993, the Stroud based Sac&Fox Nation won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case against the Oklahoma Tax Commission in which it argued that the state had no right to tax tribal members via car tag sales.

That decision kicked off the era of tribal tags, and only tribal members are allowed to purchase tribal vehicle tags.

Most of the revenue earned on tribal vehicle tag sales is applied to tribal budgets, but the Cherokee Nation does send some of its money to outside interests. In 2006, it collected over $7 million in tag sales and sent over $2 million of that to local school districts in the state.

The Sac&Fox Nation sees the tribal tags as both important and symbolic.

“We knew we had taxation rights as sovereign nations. Our lands are exempt from state taxes, so our citizens did not deserve taxation through state car tag sales,” said Sac & Fox chief Kay Rhoads. “We proved we are a sovereign nation.”

Some tribal nations have opted out of issuing tags despite the potential revenue. The Choctaw Nation in Durant and the Chickasaw Nation in Ada have both decided their tribal members are spread too far through the state to make tribal tag issuance a practical matter.

As far as recognition for these tags in other states, tribal officials report no problems, except for Florida. Apparently, that state does not recognize tribal tags.