November 01, 2016 Waymaker

An Interview with Congressman Thomas Jeffery Cole

By Judge Beth A. Gibson

Congressman, it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to talk to you today and highlight the good works of your career—not only for Oklahoma but for Native Americans across the courts as well.

If you don’t mind, I would like to start by talking about who you are and where you grew up.

Well, I was born into a military family. By the time I was 11 years old, I had been to Oklahoma many times. When we moved back to Oklahoma, my parents lived in the little town of Moore. Not a little town now—it’s 60,000 people. It was 1,500 when we moved there.

The family was always very deeply rooted in Oklahoma. We go back on my mom’s side to my great-great-grandfather, who at the age of 14 was one of the last groups of Chickasaws that was forcibly removed from Mississippi. On Dad’s side—he’s not a Native—but his grandfather, my great-grandfather, came into Indian territory out of Mississippi in 1880 as an 18-year-old young man. The roots of the family are very deep, and the Chickasaw roots in particular are very strong. My great-great-grandfather ended up as the clerk of the Chickasaw Supreme Court. And his son, my great-grandfather, was later the treasurer of the Chickasaw Nation at the time of the allotment process during the early stage of the era. Then his daughter, my grandmother’s sister Te Ata, the world-renowned Indian artist and performer—there’s been a book about her; there’s now a new movie coming out about her, a documentary play—she lived to almost a hundred, died in 1995. And then my mother was the first Native American woman ever elected to the state senate in Oklahoma and was very active always in tribal affairs.

So the family has a long history of not only being Chickasaw but being extremely active in Chickasaw government, politics, the arts. Sometimes there are mediators between the non-Indian society and tribal society, and my mom played that role. I’ve played that role to a degree as well.

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