Native American leaders and activists welcomed a Supreme Court decision deeming that much of eastern Oklahoma is Indian land as a long-overdue relaxation of “hostility” by the federal courts to tribal jurisdiction claims.
“The court didn’t lay out any new legal principles that weren’t already established,” said Dylan Hedden-Nicely, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
“What is impressive beyond the facts of the case is, for the last 30 or 40 years, the Supreme Court has been pretty hostile to tribal treaty rights and issues related to Native American law.”
Hedden-Nicely, associate professor at Idaho’s College of Law and head of the college’s Native American Law Program, said Thursday’s ruling was consistent with foundational principles of federal Indian law, the Couer d’Alene/Post Falls Express reported.
The 5-4 Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma found that some three million acres of land in the eastern part of the state belonged to the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations under the terms of 19th century treaties with Congress. It was called “potentially one of the most consequential legal victories for Native Americans in decades.”
The decision means that native Americans living in a large swath of eastern Oklahoma, home to more than 1.8 million people, including the state’s second-largest city Tulsa, containing about 400,000 residents, cannot be prosecuted by state authorities for offenses committed on the territory.
“After a century of Oklahoma not following our treaty rights, The Supreme Court said no more,” said Cherokee writer and advocate Rebecca Nagle via Twitter.
“Eastern Oklahoma is Indian Country.”
The case involved a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Jimcy McGirt, convicted of rape of a minor in 1997. McGirt, 71, has spent the last two decades behind bars .
“The location where the crime was committed should have been considered outside the reach of state criminal law”, his lawyers maintained.
Ultimately, The Supreme Court “agreed that the site of the rape should have been recognized as part of a reservation based on the historical claim of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation” and therefore deems the land “beyond the jurisdiction of state authorities.”
“The Supreme Court today kept the United States’ sacred promise to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation. Today’s decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our established sovereignty and territorial boundaries”, said the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in an official statement on Thursday following the decision.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. added that the ruling does not mean that those who commit crimes on reservation lands will not face justice as “no tribe would ever welcome that.”
He said tribes will continue to work with the state of Oklahoma and the federal and tribal partners on legal parameters under the decision that was made.
Forrest Tahdooahnippah, a Comanche Nation citizen and attorney who specializes in tribal law, said the ruling’s short-term implications are largely confined to the criminal context and that serious felonies committed by Native Americans in parts of eastern Oklahoma will be subject to federal jurisdiction.
Mike Hunter, Oklahoma Attorney General, indicated that McGirt’s case would be retried in federal courts.
“The Nations and the State are committed to ensuring that Jimcy McGirt, and all other offenders face justice for the crimes for which they are accused,” he said in a statement.
“We have a shared commitment to maintaining public safety and long-term economic prosperity for the Nations and Oklahoma.”
The implications for the affected residents are significant and could have far-reaching economic impact, according to some officials.
Tribe members living within the boundaries will now be exempt from “certain state obligations” such as paying state taxes. Additionally, the decision means that Native Americans found guilty in state courts will be able to challenge their convictions on “jurisdictional grounds”.
Brook A. Simmons, president of the Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma issued the following statement: “The Petroleum Alliance of Oklahoma is disappointed in today’s majority opinion in McGirt v. Oklahoma, but we are moving forward to work with the state of Oklahoma, the tribes and Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation to ensure that our members continue to have a stable, predictable regulatory and tax environment consistent with their interests.”
This summary was prepared by TCR news intern Tayler Green.