The major decision prevents state authorities from prosecuting offenses committed on Native land because such crimes are now under federal jurisdiction.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said that much of eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, is considered Native reservation land under the law. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who joined the majority, sided with Native nations in the past. In the majority opinion, he said that Congress designated the territory as tribal land and that the United States needed to abide by it.
“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law,” said Justice Gorsuch. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
Because of the decision, major crimes committed by Natives on reservations will be prosecuted by the federal government. Tribal courts will oversee less serious offenses.
Moreover, the ruling has been deemed a victory by Native leaders because it clarified the status of their lands. The Muscogee nation hailed the Court’s decision.“Today’s decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our established sovereignty and territorial boundaries,” they released in a statement.
However, in a dissenting decision, Chief Justice John G. Roberts argued that the majority’s decision could possibly create confusion with regards to the state’s powers in eastern Oklahoma. Also, it ran the risk of reshaping the criminal justice system by calling into question thousands of serious crimes prosecuted by the state.
Justice Roberts wrote, “The decision today creates significant uncertainty for the State’s continuing authority over any area that touches Indian affairs, ranging from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law.”
The docket in question involved a member of the Seminole nation named Jim McGirt who was convicted of rape against a child by state authorities in 1997. Although, McGrit committed the crimes in Muscogee [Creek] Nation territory, Congress never officially eliminated the nation’s sovereignty. As a result, McGirt argued that only federal authorities were entitled to prosecute him. The state disagreed, saying that the area was never reservation land.
McGirt v. Oklahoma was the second time the Supreme Court attempted to resolve the status of indigenous territories in eastern Oklahoma. In 2018, the Justices heard arguments in Sharp v. Murphy. The case was an appeal of the state court’s prosecution of Patrick Murphy, a Creek Native sentenced to death for the murder of George Jacobs in McIntosh County, east of Oklahoma City.
Later, information revealed that the murder took place on indigenous territory. Consequently, Murphy argued that only the federal government could prosecute his case. Therefore, he could not be sentenced to death because federal law banned it. When the case reached the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts recused himself. The remaining Justice’s votes resulted in a deadlock.
Speaking with forked-tongues and treaties
The Supreme Court’s decision is a reckoning with the United State’s brutal history of displacing indigenous people from their lands. During Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the government forced Native nations to relocate from their ancestral lands in the south and east, to lands northwest of the Mississippi River. The brutal 5000-mile journey became known as the Trail of Tears. In this dislocation, thousands of indigenous people died.
Under the Removal Treaty of 1833, the Muscogee Nation traded its homelands in exchange for new territories in Oklahoma. It was largely strategic. Native nations hoped that by appeasing the U.S. government, they would retain some of their land. As well, their acquiescence would end harassment from white settlers. Evoking this history, Justice Gorsuch wrote, “On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise. Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever.”
The Muscogee nation maintained that they kept the federal government’s promise of a protected reservation. This decision hopefully will establish clarity in legal protections for members of the first nations of the lands.
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