After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the McGirt case that Oklahoma may not stealthily diminish tribal sovereignty, representatives of the Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma met to try to agree in principal on the extent to which Oklahoma will back off from asserting certain jurisdiction over Cherokee citizens.
Cherokee Nation's leadership seems to have been inspired to enact a framework for continuity. Wes Nofire, an electeder memb of the Cherokee Tribal Council, squared off to address a couple of things: How can the 200,000-plus Cherokee citizens within the 14-county tribal jurisdiction service area we commonly think of as the Cherokee Nation's land base be left out of the discussion on such an important matter? And what process is due for Cherokee citizen input? Tribal leaders quickly responded that input would be sought.
Make no mistake: The Cherokee Nation is a formidable government. Cherokees once were almost 100 percent of the people living in the northeastern corner of what is now Oklahoma, on lands stretching from the Kansas line at the north, to approximately I-40 at the south, and from East Tulsa stretching to the Arkansas state border. Today, of about 380,000 Cherokee citizens, roughly half live inside the tribal jurisdiction or reservation boundaries. And 11,000 Cherokee tribal employees administer governmental programs impacting the Oklahoma economy at over $2 billion.
Cherokee Nation employs 45 teachers for its high school and for Tsalagi Tsunadeloquasdia, a 100-student K-6 charter school that is taught in the Cherokee language. It gifts its citizens $15 million in educational scholarships and also gifts $5.4 million among 108 school districts. Cherokee children attend various summer camps.
Cherokee Nation operates a health care system that, in 2018, served up 1.3 million patient visits. Its new 469,000-square-foot Tahlequah clinic cost $200 million and is the largest of its kind in the nation. It has a medical school. It runs a $5 million substance abuse treatment facility. Cherokee Nation builds roads, and outfits volunteer fire departments, builds rural community centers, and lays rural water lines. It issues hunting and fishing licenses, and operates game and conservation preserves and environmental programs, and owns 60,000 acres of land.
Cherokee Nation's district court and appellate court system interprets a code of Cherokee laws enacted by elected lawmakers (council persons). Cherokee Nation has some of the most progressive child welfare and domestic violence protections in the United States. Cherokee Nation's Lighthorse law enforcement system was ratified in Tahlequah in 1844, but its tradition was first formalized in 1808 back east, where it evolved from very old traditional clan law based on precedent and situational justice rendered collectively. Cherokee law enforcement for at least the past 175 years has been about community policing and restorative justice. These two concepts are trending mainstream nationwide, sparked by the zeitgeist of Black Lives Matter.
By the numbers, Cherokee Nation is a whole, full and complete government, serving its citizens with more and better resources than does the state of Oklahoma - due partly to the tribe's inclination to invest in quality-of-life health and education services for citizens.The immediate challenge may be in budgeting and tooling up for a more replete criminal justice system.
In the 1990s, C herokee Nation laws were updated to mostly trail Oklahoma state laws. Doing so legitimized tribal court to Oklahoma government, by neutralizing Full Faith and Credit challenges, at a time when the judicial branch was in renaissance after a dark era of unilateral (and constitutionally impermissible) abrogation by the state. Since then, much has changed. McGirt raises the potential for Cherokee Nation to customize its criminal justice approach in a uniquely Cherokee way.
Kathy Tibbits is a Cherokee citizen, attorney, and artist living at Lake Tenkiller.