Indian Country Today
It has been more than five weeks since the Supreme Court gave its historic decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, ruling that Congress never explicitly disestablished the historic boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
Yet, tribal leaders and Native organizations remain concerned about potential legislation that would upend the decision and undermine tribal sovereignty.
Last Thursday, eight tribal organizations from across the country wrote a letter to Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe and the rest of the Oklahoma congressional delegation, sharing their concerns about a congressional working group.
Jason Salsman, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is the press secretary for the tribe and said the tribe was “fired up” when they saw the letter.
“It was such a show of unity and it was powerful and it covered just about every region of the country,” Salsman said. “So it was all a little bit overwhelming, but awesome.”
The letter addressed the McGirt decision as the most significant decision for Indian Country in a lifetime and characterized it as a “unity decision.” Additionally, the letter said having the working group from the state of Oklahoma alone would have unintended consequences, and time must be given for the process to work.
“Rushed legislation, even if narrowly crafted, would create a dangerous blueprint and expectation that Congress should be engaging in diminishing tribal authority—instead of restoring or preserving it,” the letter says. “Such a blueprint, predicated on the Court’s historic decision in McGirt, would threaten the sovereignty of all of our tribal nations, and ultimately would undermine the safety and prosperity of all of those who live within or near a reservation.”
The letter was signed by the leaders of the following Native organizations: the National Congress of American Indians, the Association on American Indian Affairs, the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, the Inter Tribal Association of Arizona, Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association, Inc., United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes.
Inhofe, the senior member of Oklahoma's congressional delegation, said in a statement Friday the concern of the tribal organizations is misplaced.
“As I’ve said from day one – the entire delegation agrees and has said that some action will need to be taken in response to McGirt," Inhofe said. “We don’t know yet what that will be. That’s why the delegation is working together with the tribes and all Oklahomans to understand the scope and impact of the McGirt decision."
When concerns were first raised in late July about the possible addition of a “midnight rider,” Inhofe’s office told Indian Country Today it was false that the senator was considering attaching any amendment that would disestablish the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation.
“Completely untrue,” communications director Leacy Burke said at the time.
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The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in that case determined that a large swath of eastern Oklahoma remains tribal land and that state prosecutors lack the authority to pursue certain criminal cases with American Indian defendants or victims in parts of Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, the state's second largest city.
Early last week, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation announced the formation of the Mvskoke Reservation Protection Commission.
The group is made up of a large number of “experts, professionals and authorities.” They have been tasked to review an array of policy areas and make recommendations to ensure there is a clear understanding of any continued fallout from the McGirt decision.
“This Commission will make recommendations to build long-term changes to policies impacting health, safety, welfare and prosperity,” Principal Chief David Hill said in the press release. “We have selected experts in their field ensuring the best and brightest minds have input in this process. Our goal has always been to build a better future for all of Oklahoma by working with tribal, state, county, municipal and federal partners, as well as, the business community.”
Salsman also added that the tribe felt it was important that the commission have Muscogee voices covering and analyzing the issues that affect them. He said the McGirt decision touches on how the tribe exercises its sovereignty and other issues.
“Flexing our sovereignty is not so much a power move as it is a protection move. A protection of our children that we want to see stay in their Native families,” Salsman said. “A our protection of our women, that we don't want to see offenders of violence against them fall through the cracks and the jurisdictional gaps that existed before our favorable decision and our victory in the Supreme Court.”
Also last week and a few days after the Muscogee commission was announced, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. announced the establishment of a “sovereignty commission” for the Cherokee Nation. Their commission will similarly make resource and funding recommendations, as well as examine all related areas related to the McGirt decision.
The commission is made up of Cherokee citizens from the tribe’s law enforcement, judiciary and legislative branches and other individuals such as former U.S. Ambassador Keith Harper.
Part of their assignment is to recommend and prepare for what steps must be taken as the tribe expands its criminal jurisdiction.
“I’ve spent decades working to protect our sovereignty and we need to be proactive now more than ever,” said speaker of the tribal council Joe Byrd of joining the commission.
Hoskin said that the tribe will do what it must to keep the McGirt decision intact and also ensure that criminal acts committed on tribal lands do not slip through the proverbial cracks.
“The Cherokee Nation will continue to fight to protect our sovereignty, the Cherokee reservation, the Cherokee people and all citizens living within our Cherokee reservation boundaries,” Hoskin said.
Just as Indian Country’s eyes were fixated on the case, so too will they be on Congress for any legislation and continued fallout from the historic decision.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
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