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Congressman Tom Cole dwells on role as first Native American to lead House Appropriations Committee

Congressman Tom Cole at a Medal of Honor ceremony at the Oklahoma State Capitol in April 2024.
Caroline Halter
Legislative Service Bureau
Congressman Tom Cole speaks at a Norman town hall in 2019.

History was made when Republican Congressman Tom Cole became not only the first Oklahoman to chair the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, but also the first Native American to do so.

In a recent letter to constituents, Cole discussed the importance of his identity as a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and the role it has played in his perspective as a member of Congress.

He explained that he strives to be a voice for tribal citizens, highlighting issues in Indian Country that others in Congress might not understand. Cole specifically noted the federal trust responsibility that the federal government is obligated to protect the welfare of tribal citizens.

“States and the federal government must work with Native Americans to maintain the integrity of their heritage, culture, and rights,” Cole wrote. “At the same time, the federal government must uphold its constitutional oath to tribes to provide basic resources such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, and law enforcement, among many others, in Indian Country.”

Cole also comes from a legacy of leaders in his family, who worked to preserve their tribe’s culture. He wrote in the letter his mother Helen TeAta Gale Cole was the first Native American woman elected to the Oklahoma State Senate, and his great-grandfather, Thomas Benjamin Thompson, Sr., was the last elected Treasurer of the Chickasaw Nation prior to Oklahoma statehood.

Cole took his post in Washington on April 10. He noted in the letter that his goal is to ensure tribal sovereignty is protected, and tribal citizens are taken care of.

“I have long been, and always will be, an advocate for expanding self-governance wherever possible and ensuring tribes receive the resources they need to take care of their communities because, at the end of the day, tribes are the best at taking care of their people,” Cole said.

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Sarah Liese reports on Indigenous Affairs for KOSU.
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