Oklahoma and the Five Tribes

The several States and the American Indian Nations can coexist as partly-sovereign entities within our common Union.

“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of fed­eral criminal law. Because Congress has not said other­wise, we hold the government to its word.” —Opinion of the Supreme Court, delivered by Justice Gorsuch.

This ruling (linked below), somewhat overshadowed by the Court’s pronouncements on Mr. Trump’s tax returns the same day, significantly affects the relationship between the State of Oklahoma and the Five Tribes that have resided there since traversing the Trail of Tears in the 1830s: the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole.

The case began with a jurisdictional challenge by Jimcy McGirt, a Seminole man convicted in state court of raping a four-year-old child; it ended with the Supreme Court determining that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation, where the crime took place, had never been disestablished by law and thus remains in existence today. The same logic is likely to apply to the other four tribes, whose combined reservation lands would cover most of eastern Oklahoma, including the city of Tulsa. That area’s population today is about 10-15% American Indian.

The ruling will compel Oklahoma, the federal government, and the Five Tribes to think through the complex federalism that exists where federal, state, local, and tribal authority overlap on the same territory. Its immediate legal effect seems to be that Indians charged with crimes in Eastern Oklahoma will be tried in either tribal or federal courts, rather than state courts, and that all Indians residing on that reservation land may be exempted from some state tax. The State would continue to perform its normal functions otherwise.

There is a feeling of justice fulfilled, in that the ruling affirmed the lasting duty of the United States to uphold its laws and treaty obligations, even where those obligations have been ignored or subverted in the past. Yet there are also issues regarding local governance, particularly in zoning and land use, that could arise from it. Important principles are at play: the right of the Indian Nations to exercise their due amount of sovereignty over those lands, and the right of the area’s (now mostly non-Indian) inhabitants to have a say in their local government.

The parties involved seem to be off to a productive start: federal attorneys, the State, and the Five Tribes have announced that they are all working together on a new legal framework for the area concerned, which they will present to federal authorities in Washington. They have a chance to show our Republic and the world a new model for how the several States and the American Indian Nations can coexist as partly-sovereign entities within our common Union. And the first step may be to show that they can still hold Mr. McGirt accountable for his crimes.