US Supreme Court rules half of Oklahoma is Native American land

Tony Gosling tony at
Fri Jul 10 20:18:30 BST 2020

US Supreme Court rules half of Oklahoma is Native American land

10 July 2020

A representative of the Choctaw nation - one of the Five Tribes of 
Oklahoma central to the court ruling, who have welcomed the ruling
The US Supreme Court has ruled about half of Oklahoma belongs to 
Native Americans, in a landmark case that also quashed a child rape conviction.

The justices decided 5-4 that an eastern chunk of the state, 
including its second-biggest city, Tulsa, should be recognised as 
part of a reservation.

Jimcy McGirt, who was convicted in 1997 of raping a girl, brought the case.

He cited the historical claim of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to the 
land where the assault occurred.


What does the ruling mean?
Thursday's decision in McGirt v Oklahoma is seen as one of the most 
far-reaching cases for Native Americans before the highest US court in decades.

The ruling means some tribe members found guilty in state courts for 
offences committed on the land at issue can now challenge their convictions.

Only federal prosecutors will have the power to criminally prosecute 
Native Americans accused of crimes in the area.

Tribe members who live within the boundaries may also be exempt from 
state taxes, according to Reuters news agency.

Some 1.8 million people - of whom about 15% are Native American - 
live on the land, which spans three million acres.

What did the justices say?
Justice Neil Gorsuch, a conservative appointed by US President Donald 
Trump, sided with the court's four liberals and also wrote the opinion.

He referred to the Trail of Tears, the forcible 19th Century 
relocation of Native Americans, including the Creek Nation, to Oklahoma.

Media captionA photo album that took 25 years to make
The US government said at the time that the new land would belong to 
the tribes in perpetuity.

Justice Gorsuch wrote: "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."

What about the rape case?
The ruling overturned McGirt's prison sentence. He could still, 
however, be tried in federal court.

McGirt, now 71, was convicted in 1997 in Wagoner County of raping a 
four-year-old girl.

Media captionWhat happened to Olivia Lone Bear?
He did not dispute his guilt before the Supreme Court, but argued 
that only federal authorities should have been entitled to prosecute him.

McGirt is a member of the Seminole Nation.

His lawyer, Ian Heath Gershengorn, told CNBC: "The Supreme Court 
reaffirmed today that when the United States makes promises, the 
courts will keep those promises."

How might Oklahoma's criminal justice system be affected?
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the decision 
would destabilise the state's courts.

He wrote: "The State's ability to prosecute serious crimes will be 
hobbled and decades of past convictions could well be thrown out.

"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."

An analysis by The Atlantic magazine of Oklahoma Department of 
Corrections records found that 1,887 Native Americans were in prison 
as of the end of last year for offences committed within the 
boundaries of the tribal territory.

But fewer than one in 10 of those cases would qualify for a new 
federal trial, according to the research.

Media captionCan indigenous wellness help heal historical trauma?
Jonodev Chaudhuri, a former chief justice of the Muscogee Nation's 
Supreme Court, dismissed talk of legal mayhem.

He told the Tulsa World newspaper: "All the sky-is-falling narratives 
were dubious at best.

"This would only apply to a small subset of Native Americans 
committing crimes within the boundaries."

How did other tribal leaders react?
In a joint statement, the Five Tribes of Oklahoma - Cherokee, 
Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole and Muscogee Nation - welcomed the ruling.

They pledged to work with federal and state authorities to agree 
shared jurisdiction over the land.

"The Nations and the state are committed to implementing a framework 
of shared jurisdiction that will preserve sovereign interests and 
rights to self-government while affirming jurisdictional 
understandings, procedures, laws and regulations that support public 
safety, our economy and private property rights," the statement said. 
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