Leaders representing eight organizations that represent tribal nations sent a letter to Oklahoma’s congressional delegation this week to express concerns about efforts they believe threatens sovereignty.  

The organizations, which include the National Congress of American Indians and the Association on American Indian Affairs, addressed the letter specifically to U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe. Carbon copies were sent to U.S. Sen. James Lankford and all five members of the delegation who serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

“It has come to our attention that staff members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation have formed a working group with the ostensible purpose of establishing, in a matter of weeks, proposed legislation to abrogate the tribal sovereignty upheld by the Supreme Court in its July 9, 2020, decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma,” the authors of the letter state. “We fear that any such bill could irreparably undermine the sovereignty of tribal nations across the country.”

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in that case determined the territorial boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation granted by treaty in the 1830s remains an American Indian reservation for purposes of criminal law. The state, pursuant to federal law, lacks the authority to prosecute certain crimes that occur on Indian land if the defendant or the victim is Native American.

Jason Salsman, press secretary for the Okmulgee-based tribe, said in an email that Inhofe’s “formation of a secretive ... task force ... has the goal of hastily producing legislation ... that will not be publicly debated or considered under regular order.” He said such legislation could “damage sovereignty for every tribal nation in every state.”

Democratic nominee Abby Broyles, who is challenging Inhofe for his Senate seat, said the decision in McGirt “cleared the path for Oklahoma’s tribes to ensure public safety and expand economic opportunity for both Natives and their non-Native neighbors.” She said any effort by Inhofe to reverse that would put him “on the wrong side of the U.S. Constitution and the interests of Oklahomans.” 

“Tribal organizations across the country are united against Inhofe because, at the end of the day, a threat to sovereignty anywhere is a threat to sovereignty everywhere,” Broyles said in an emailed response for a comment. “If we are to move forward in the spirit of cooperation between the United States government and tribal nations across the country it is imperative we begin with new leadership.”

Inhofe, the senior member of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation, said in a statement released Friday to The Associated Press, said the concerns expressed by Native American organizations are misplaced. He said the “entire delegation,” since the McGirt decision was announced, has agreed “that some action will need to be taken in response to McGirt.” 

“We don’t know yet what that will be,” Inhofe said in the statement. “That’s why the delegation is working together with the tribes and all Oklahomans to understand the scope and impact of the McGirt decision.”

The organizations, in the letter, applauded leaders of Oklahoma’s tribal nations and urged Inhofe and other members of the congressional delegation to allow time for their efforts to work. 

“We believe that any effort that begins with the preconceived goal of crafting federal legislation restricting tribal jurisdiction would be, by definition, dismissive of sovereignty,” the organizations wrote. It “would replace respectful government to government negotiations with a harmful one-size-fits-all federal dictate” and “create a dangerous blueprint.”

Broyles expressed skepticism about Inhofe’s “intentions of cooperating” with tribal leaders on this issue and others important to the tribes that call Oklahoma home and tribal members.

“Sen. Inhofe has no intentions of cooperating in good faith, and will further sow distrust and chaos that has been the norm for centuries,” Broyles said. “We are better than our past, and we will find a way to work together.”

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