Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
The Supreme Court’s McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling affirmed tribal sovereignty, but the state’s attorney general, Republican Mike Hunter, is disputing its importance in negotiating jurisdictional responsibility with tribes and the state.
Hunter described some of those concerned about the impact of proposed federal legislation related to the case as “sovereignty hobbyists,” during an interview with reporter Scott Mitchell on News 9 in Tulsa.
According to Hunter, hobbyists are worried about “theoretical” problems and have misplaced criticism of the proposed legislation.
“They’ve accused us of eroding the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA); we’ve actually increased the ability to utilize VAWA in protecting women by using concurrent state and tribal jurisdiction rather than limiting it to tribal jurisdiction,” Hunt said.
Under the proposed legislation, announced in an "agreement in principle," the state would have criminal jurisdiction over non-Native and overlapping jurisdiction over most Native offenders.
Five Oklahoma tribes — Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole and Choctaw — initially signed on to the agreement. Later, however, after many tribal citizens complained that it undermined sovereignty, the Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole tribes announced they were not in agreement with the proposal.
Muskogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill said previously that although he believes in collaboration between federal, state and tribal governments, “that collaboration doesn’t require congressional legislation.”
Seminole Nation Chief Greg Chilcoat agreed and complained that since his tribe was not involved with discussions regarding the agreement, it would not consent to join.
Rosemary McCombs Maxey of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation described Hunter’s words as paternalistic.
“He is trivializing sovereignty. When I hear someone talking like that, I’m reminded of my childhood when the White men got to do all the talking,” she said.
Maxey, 75, lives on her grandmother’s allotted lands on the Muscogee (Creek) reservation. A native Mvscokee language speaker, Maxey has taught the language at the college level. Now retired, she holds Mvskokee language immersion events at her farm.
“Why would Congress be the arbiter of any agreement between the tribe and state? Our sovereignty is intact. We have the ability to negotiate directly with the state,” she said.
Jay Fife of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation agreed. “Hunter’s comments represent how Oklahoma views Indigenous peoples and our fight. Defending sovereignty is not something we do for fun; this is our life,” he said.
Fife, 20, is a rising sophomore at Yale University majoring in American Studies and Linguistics.
Chief David Hill wrote in an editorial Wednesday in Tulsaworld.com that Hunter’s agreement in principle would reverse the Supreme Court decision and disestablish the Muscogee (Creek) reservation.
Hill also issued a statement Wednesday announcing an executive order creating the Mvskoke Reservation Protection Commission.
According to the statement, the commission will be made up of Muscogee (Creek) citizens and will conduct an in-depth analysis of major subject areas that will include, but are not limited to: law enforcement and public safety, Indian child welfare and social services, government-to-government relationships and policy, judicial affairs, legal and regulatory matters, business and commerce, and violence against Native women and murdered and missing Indigenous women.
The commission will also collaborate with federal, state, tribal, county and municipal authorities to create mutual understanding and cooperation across jurisdictions.
The commission is expected to continue its work for one year and will issue an initial report in six months.
Critics of Oklahoma’s agreement in principle speculate that state Republican leaders forwarded the agreement as a means to protect powerful oil and gas businesses in the state.
Ostensibly the McGirt decision affects criminal jurisdiction, but its impact on businesses including oil and gas development is unclear.
In his dissenting opinion Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the McGirt decision, “The decision today creates significant uncertainty for the state’s continuing authority over any area that touches Indian affairs, ranging from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law.”
Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.