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Indian Country Needs a Red Line in Sand Against Assaults on Sovereignty

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These past few weeks have created quite a stir within Indian country. The two most significant issues are the recent ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court remanding Baby v. Adoptive Couple back to the South Carolina State Supreme Court using a narrowing defining of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and the pending State of Oklahoma (“State”), Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Tiger Hobia, as Town King and Member of the Kialegee Tribal Town Business Committee; Et. al. (“Kialegee”), Defendants-Appellants, appeal before the Oklahoma Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (“Court”).

How sad that the Adoptive Couple may one day have to tell this little Cherokee girl that they challenged her in court. It’s under the guise of their challenging the biological father, but the case name is Baby v. Adoptive Couple. How would you feel to find out that you are one of the most significant Indian court cases in history and the plaintiff was your adoptive parents? The adoptive mother made a statement to a journalist recently “We beat the Cherokee Nation.” Was their intent to beat the Cherokee Nation, or to adopt the baby? That’s the history of Native Americans. It’s not so much that non-Indians believe they are right in their fight, but they love the feeling when they can take something away from us. They enjoy sitting back after it’s over and being able to say “We beat them.” Classic confrontation and it’s still happening today.

There are assaults on our casinos, smoke shops, water rights, unwanted mining on our trust lands or close proximity to reservations, lack of adequate supervised development of oil fields, taxation issues around the country, etc. We are given a bone here and there while they attempt to backdoor Indian Country by eroding our inherent right and sovereignty. We are forced to focus on winning a battle but sometimes losing the war. It’s one step forward and two steps backwards. Never able to completely move ahead because we are forced to move behind in key issues not only affecting tribes today but potentially drastic implications down the road for all of Indian Country.

In the case of the State v. Kialegee currently before the Court, the right of a tribal member to develop a gaming operation on individually owned Indian trust land, is being challenged mostly because the City of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma’s religious right standing citizens oppose an Indian casino in their backyard. Their backyard?

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A review of the past history will demonstrate that most of the township of Broken Arrow in question was obtained by non-Indians during the period when the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (“BIA”) official policy created an effort to force fee-patents on Indian allotments. During the early period of the 1900’s, the official BIA policy declared that a full-blood Indian was considered incompetent and the BIA had to manage Indian land interests. If a tribal member was half-Indian or less, the Agency Superintendent could determine through a simple questioning of the Indian landowners if the Indian was competent or needed further supervision of their Indian lands meaning Indian lands couldn’t be leased without BIA approval on his or her own trust allotment. Many of those force fee-patents resulted in the loss of land by Indian landowners through tax forfeiture once a fee-patent was issued. These Indian landowners lived off the land and had very little income because it was used primarily to sustain their family from personal use. It wasn’t until John Collier, author of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, became the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933 that this terrible policy was changed to protect Indian lands and most forced fee-patents stopped.

Parts of Broken Arrow exist today because of this policy. Now they resist most economic development in Indian country. But many of these same folks sit at casinos all over the country gambling. It’s like “Let's have the party at your house, but they don’t want folks over to their house.” Broken Arrow didn’t ask the Indians if it was ok to build their businesses, schools, churches and neighborhoods adjacent to Indian lands, but they oppose Indians attempting to make life better for themselves and family through leasing of their land or creating economic development.

This story is a travesty when you understand how this prime property was taken out of trust and conveyed to non-Indians and land speculators through tax forfeiture. We didn’t understand their ways, but they didn’t understand our ways either. This case is challenging tribal sovereignty at its very core. The State’s claim should be dismissed, and the district court’s rulings overturned and Indians should be able to use their land without continuous outside interference.

The United States has strongly warned Syria about the use of suspected weapons of mass destruction against the people of Syria, calling it a red line that must not be crossed over. Indian Country needs a red line protection also to prevent the further erosion of our sovereignty which was promised to us under our treaties so many years ago.

Jay Daniels has 30 years of experience working in Indian country, managing trust lands and is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. You can find resources and information at