OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma counties and municipalities have begun entering into new intergovernmental agreements and working with their tribal neighbors following last year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and tribal leaders said they’re hopeful state officials will soon be willing to do the same.
Tribal leaders also said Monday at the annual Sovereignty Symposium that they hope state officials will accept last year’s 5-4 precedent-setting McGirt ruling despite continued court challenges and requests to narrow it.
When the nation’s highest court ruled that large swaths of eastern Oklahoma remain Native American reservations, it also found that the state may have been misapplying some laws for generations, particularly in the area of criminal law. The court found that the reservations were established by treaties and were not and cannot be disestablished except by explicit action of U.S. Congress.
Stephen Greetham, senior counsel to the Chickasaw Nation, said he’s confident state leaders will be ready to discuss issues, too, but they’re not there yet.
“This is a big family fight,” Greetham said, adding that one of the “most pernicious misstatements” right now is that intergovernmental cooperation is impossible.
He said there’s a rich history of inter-governmental cooperation and coordination.
“Rural Oklahoma benefits enormously from tribal activity,” Greetham said.
Over 40% of Oklahoma is covered by the reservations of just five tribes — Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole.
The Cherokee Nation alone covers about 7,000 square miles or about 10% of the state’s land. About 513,450 people — or about 13% of Oklahoma’s population — live within the Cherokee Nation borders. Nearly 144,000 Cherokee citizens live within the nation’s reservation borders.
Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation attorney general, said most of the post-ruling narrative has involved the state’s loss. There’s been little appetite to discuss the choices made early in Oklahoma’ history and the history of tribal loss, which is central to Oklahoma’s origin.
“I think that we look at McGirt sometimes as if this is some kind of damage that was done to the state instead of a healing that was occurring at the same time,” Hill said. “You’re healing the tribes of this wrong that was done to them.”
She said Indigenous People’s Day was an appropriate time to meditate on what Oklahoma can look like when the state and Indian tribes can be good partners. Tribes, Hill said, are capable of helping the state bear the burden of government, which is a joint responsibility.
“The tribes are here saying, ‘Let us bear it with you,’” Hill said. “And I think Oklahoma can definitely be a better place, a result of that if we take the time, give ourselves the time and space to have to conversations.”
She said the tribe has entered into intergovernmental agreements with several municipalities to dispense of traffic tickets and the revenue those entities rely on.
For instance, if someone gets a ticket in Muskogee, they can go to the city clerk’s office and pay the ticket. All of the money except the $30 fee that would have previously been remitted to the state in costs and fees remains in Muskogee’s coffers as “a donation” from the tribe, Hill said.
If someone challenges the ticket, the Cherokee Nation has a commitment to work with municipal prosecutors to do that, she said.
“To us that seemed like a fair way to do it,” she said.
Orvil Loge, the former Muskogee County district attorney, said it’s “promising” to hear from tribal leaders that they want to talk about the issues.
But he said questions still remain including the proper prosecution of juvenile cases, law enforcement issues on cross-deputization, search warrants and traffic stops, determining whether cases need to be prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office or the state Attorney General’s Office, and post-conviction relief for offenders.
“One thing that district attorneys across Oklahoma are committed to is to represent victims and protect victims and pursue justice,” Loge said. “And if that means that we work with every agency, whether it be the tribe or the U.S. Attorney’s Office, that’s what we do.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.