Things That Matter

The Supreme Court Issued A Landmark Decision Confirming That Almost Half Of Oklahoma Is Native American Land

The 2020 Supreme Court season will be one for the record books, as the court handed down several major decisions that impacted the lives of millions of Americans.

From outlawing discrimination in the workplace against LGBTQ people to allowing religious employers to deny insurance coverage of contraceptives, it’s been a very consequential Supreme Court season. Now, the court has handed down one of the most important decisions affecting Native American tribes in generations.

The Supreme Court says that the eastern half of Oklahoma is Native American land.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a major ruling that declared a huge swath of Oklahoma as Native American land for certain legal purposes. The ruling affects about half the state and will have major consequences for both past and future criminal and civil cases.

The court’s decision hinged on the question of whether the Creek reservation continued to exist after Oklahoma became a state.

“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,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

The decision was 5-4, with Justices Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer in the majority, while Justices John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented

The decision means that only federal authorities, no longer state prosecutors, can lodge charges against Native Americans who commit serious alleged crimes on that land, which is home to 1.8 million people. Of those people, 15% or fewer are Native Americans.

Ruling that these lands are in fact reservations doesn’t mean the tribe owns all the land within the reservation, just like the county doesn’t own all the land within the county. In fact, it probably doesn’t own very much of that land, according to several legal experts.

The ruling will have significant legal implications for eastern Oklahoma.

Credit: Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

There will be several implications based on the Supreme Court’s decision. First of all, certain major crimes committed within the boundaries of reservations must be prosecuted in federal courts rather than by state courts, if a Native American tribe member is involved.

For example, if a Native American is accused of a major crime in downtown Tulsa, the federal government rather than the state government will prosecute it. Less serious crimes involving Native Americans on American Indian land will be handled in tribal courts. This arrangement is already common in Western states like Arizona, New Mexico and Montana.

The ruling will also affect past decisions – many of which are now considered wrongful conditions because the state lacked jurisdiction. A number of criminal defendants who have been convicted in the past will now have grounds to challenge their convictions, arguing that the state never had jurisdiction to try them.

The decision is a major win for Native Americans, but so much more work needs to be done.

“The Supreme Court today kept the United States’ sacred promise to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation,” the tribe said in a statement. “Today’s decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our established sovereignty and territorial boundaries.”

The same day that the court issued its landmark Oklahoma decision, a federal judge also ordered that oil must stop flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline, which runs from North Dakota to Illinois. The deadline is August 5.

Of course, these are major legal victories. But taken together, they only highlight the ongoing legal issues and discrimination that Native American tribes face. To realize a complete vision of Indigenous sovereignty and environmental justice takes people power — the kind that energized the 2016 Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline but that in fact goes back much further.

In 2007, the International Indian Treaty Council, alongside other international Indigenous organizations, helped draft the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Although imperfect — declarations are, after all, aspirational and nonbinding — the declaration provides a universal mechanism for free, prior and informed consent with Indigenous nations over the decision-making process of development projects.

A major win for Native American tribes in the United States would hinge on Indigenous authority over lands that they control and landscapes that they have historic and cultural ties to.

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