In April, Justice Neil Gorsuch asked his Supreme Court colleagues if they would “wither today because of a social media campaign.” The case was Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, in which the State of Oklahoma asserted that it had jurisdiction to prosecute certain crimes committed against Indian citizens on Indian reservations. This claim was unsupported by law or history, violating legal precedents, established practices in other states, and the clear intent and authority of Congress.
This week, Gorsuch got his answer: yes, the court would wither and side with an aggressively political media campaign on the rule of law. The tribes have once again seen another broken promise – despite our best hopes, the court sent a message that the word of the United States is meaningless when it comes to promises made to Indian Country.
The issue stems from the 2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma decision, in which the Supreme Court and subsequent lower court cases ruled that the reservations of several Oklahoma tribes had never been removed and that the authorities of the State had therefore illegally exercised their jurisdiction over Indian lands. This includes the Cherokee Nation, which I am honored to serve as Senior Chief, and our reservation covering 7,000 square miles in northeast Oklahoma.
Even before the ruling, the tribes recognized the tremendous work that would be required to rebuild our justice systems after more than a century of repression, and the importance of working with our state, local and federal partners to fulfill our new responsibilities in matter of public safety. There would be challenges, but we certainly all had the same goal of protecting our people, and working in cooperation with the state was the obvious way to succeed.
Or so we thought. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has spent the past two years not just protesting the McGirt ruling, but actively obstructing cooperation with tribes, from vetoing public safety legislation passed by his own party. to the cancellation of hunting and fishing agreements that were win-win for the tribes and the state. And he wasted time and taxpayer dollars on legal battles, backed by an aggressive media campaign that proved more than willing to exaggerate or outright lie in order to paint a picture of a state in chaos that ‘no cooperation could solve.
“Unfortunately, the plain language of the Constitution … was not important to the justices who sided with Oklahoma on Wednesday.”
While the court denied the state’s numerous requests to quash McGirt outright, it granted Castro-Huerta’s separate question on jurisdiction, which impacts not just reservations in Oklahoma, but everything. the country. Until this case, there were few credible disputes on this issue – apart from clear exceptions, crimes committed against Indian victims on Indian lands would be prosecuted in tribal court if the perpetrator was Indian, or in federal court if not. Unless both parties were non-Indian, state jurisdiction would not apply. This was the clear reality recognized by the US Congress, which passed laws granting exceptions to these situations in several states that would be downright absurd if the claims of state jurisdiction were correct.
Unfortunately, the Constitution’s clear language regarding congressional authority over Indian law matters was not important to the justices who sided with Oklahoma on Wednesday. “Now,” Gorsuch wrote in his dissent, “at the request of the Oklahoma executive branch, this Court is undoing those lower court rulings, defying the statutes of Congress requiring tribal consent, offering its own consent instead from that of the tribe and allows Oklahoma to interfere on a tribal sovereignty trait recognized since the founding.
It may not diminish tribal authority—the cases in question would only be prosecuted in federal court, not tribal court—but it is yet another unacceptable assault on our inherent sovereignty. We are once again faced with broken promises.
Yet unlike those who prioritize the fight against our rights and sovereignty, my goal remains to provide protective cover for all people on our reservation, Indian and non-Indian alike. With this legal matter behind us, Governor Stitt will hopefully recognize that it is time to come to the table and join all of us who have called for a cooperative effort to support victims and public safety. The Cherokee Nation has filed more than 6,000 cases in tribal court since McGirt and has invested tens of millions in expanding our justice system, from hiring new staff to building new courthouses. We did it because no matter how right or wrong the court may decide, we are going to protect our people. And now it’s time for Oklahoma to do the same.