The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians is expressing opposition to language in a U.S. House bill that would allow two tribes to compact with the state of Oklahoma over criminal jurisdiction.
Congressman Tom Cole, Oklahoma District 4 Republican, introduced legislation Tuesday that would authorize the Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, and the state to enter into agreements that would allow tribes to authorize prosecution in district courts. This follows the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the McGirt v. Oklahoma case, which asserted the reservations of tribes in eastern Oklahoma were never disestablished, thus stripping the state of its authority over criminal cases involving Natives.
UKB Chief Joe Bunch on Wednesday objected to a section of the bill regarding reservation integrity, claiming it gives "exclusive jurisdiction over the 14-county Cherokee reservation" to the Cherokee Nation.
The UKB is one of the three federally-recognized Cherokee tribes in the U.S., and it's home is Tahlequah, which is also the capital of Cherokee Nation. Bunch said the UKB has as much legal status as the Cherokee Nation, and that the two tribes share the reservation spanning the historical 14-county area.
"We both have lands in trust within the reservation and we both have the sovereign right and ability to govern ourselves," said Bunch. "Section 4 [of Cole's bill] would give CNO [Cherokee Nation] a veto over the UKB's federal confirmed right to place lands in trust within the reservation."
Furthermore, Bunch claims the legislation violates the spirit of the Indian Reorganization Act, which prohibits the federal government from discrimination among Indian tribes; steps over the tribe's right under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act to place land in trust; and disregards a 1828 treaty between the UKB and U.S. in which the tribe gave up its Arkansas reservation in exchange for lands in what is now Oklahoma.
"In sum, the UKB strongly opposes H.R. 3091, which does absolutely nothing to support clarity or consistency regarding the exercise of criminal jurisdiction and authority in Indian Country in Oklahoma," Bunch said. "Instead, the bill incorrectly attributes exclusive jurisdictional control of the historic Cherokee reservation to the CNO. Further, the bill ignores the fact that the reservation is shared by the UKB. The UKB may only possess one trust parcel today, but that will change over time, and our predecessors settled in Northeastern Oklahoma well before other Cherokee people arrived here. Congress should not ignore that historical fact when considering such legislation."
After introducing the bill, Cole said he's been in conversations over the past several months with law enforcement officers across Oklahoma's District 4, and that the bill would address issues such as gaps in criminal jurisdiction.
"This legislation would provide an immediate solution to the urgent issues facing law enforcement, giving them clarity to enforce the law, keep dangerous criminals behind bars and ensure justice is served," he said.
The Cherokee Nation asserted Wednesday that the McGirt case nor Cole's legislation has an impact on the UKB, and CN Principal Chuck Hoskin Jr. said that the related Hogner v. Oklahoma case certified that only its reservation it still intact.
"At no time since its founding in 1950 has the UKB had any legitimate claim to any treaties between the United States and the Cherokee Nation, or any of the rights and obligations stemming from those treaties," Hoskin said. "Courts have repeatedly rejected the false claim that the UKB is a successor in interest to the historic Cherokee Nation. Cherokee Nation, which has existed from time immemorial and which has had a continuous and unbroken relationship with the United States, exercises jurisdictional authority over the Cherokee Nation reservation."
The tribe also pointed to "illegal" compacts signed between Gov. Kevin Stitt and the UKB, among other tripes, in exchange for trust land in Indian Country. Those compacts were invalidated last year when the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the governor did not have the authority to negotiate the agreements.
"Congressman Cole's proposed legislation will protect the territorial sovereignty of the Chickasaw Nation and the Cherokee Nation from these tactics," Hoskin said.