To some of the district attorneys invited to participate in a panel Tuesday in Tulsa to discuss the McGirt v. Oklahoma, it might have felt like a setup. Whatever its intent, the forum ultimately devolved into a protest from Native Americans in the audience, exercising their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and demand answers from officials.
The public event was ostensibly staged by Gov. Kevin Stitt and others to explain how victims in criminal cases dismissed in the wake of McGirt could seek redress, or at least where they could turn for answers. But it was handled poorly from the get-go, starting with the fact that tribal leaders were not asked to be part of the panel. Inviting them to sit in as an afterthought was an insult. In fact, District Attorney Jack Thorp called the snubbing of the chiefs a "travesty."
Thorp also said the problems with the McGirt ruling are "real." Because of the Supreme Court ruling, thousands of cases deemed improperly prosecuted by the state had to be tossed out, and are now being tackled by federal and tribal courts. A main focus of Thorp's concern is a class of cases wherein non-Natives have committed crimes against tribal members, and because of the sheer volume of cases that must be handled, those might fall by the wayside.
From the perspective of an objective and informed bystander, Thorp is doing his best to work with federal prosecutors and those of both the Cherokee and Muscogee nations. And that same bystander must also agree the Cherokee Nation has been toiling around the clock to put into place every element of a robust criminal justice system. Indeed, CN Attorney General Sara Hill had the ball rolling before Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion for the Court.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. aptly dubbed the forum as "an anti-McGirt rally for political reasons." He might have added that Stitt and some of the district attorneys seem to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease. Stitt's comment that DAs are "concerned about the Natives and non-natives that voted them into office" is a no-brainer. Of course they're concerned; they're politicians, and they can presumably do rudimentary math to calculate the expediency of 3.6 million non-Natives in Oklahoma, as opposed to 400,000 Natives. But pointing out the obvious is demeaning, and could be construed as dismissive of the people who, according to the Court, never relinquished their claim on lands in Eastern Oklahoma.
Stitt ended his program prematurely after the atmosphere had turned hostile, with audience members flashing red cards every time he or one of the panel said something objectionable. This will remind Cherokee County residents of another politician who refused to participate in a town hall at the tribal complex a few years back, when then-CN Chief Bill John Baker refused to ban those same red cards. Neither politician - both of whom claim Cherokee Nation citizenship - is adept at taking criticism.
McGirt, though rightfully decided, has brought some unintended consequences, but unless the state can put politics aside and work with tribes for a more seamless transition, it will continue to create confusion among the public - and confusion breeds fear. Stitt said, "Nobody on this panel created the McGirt situation," and he's right - but neither did the tribes. Oklahoma officials should help educate their constituents, Native or not, rather than try to score brownie points - or votes - on an issue so critical to all who live within these reservations.