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D. Sean Rowley
Cherokee Phoenix 

OKLAHOMA CITY – Marking the start of the 2022 legislative session, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt followed the annual tradition of delivering the State of the State address on Feb. 7, touching on several topics including education and the possibility of eliminating state sales taxes on grocery items.

However, Stitt opened his speech – after the greetings and introductions – with a swipe at the U.S. Supreme Court’s finding in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which said tribal reservations and jurisdictions were never annulled by Congress.

Oklahoma and its district attorneys have not disguised their displeasure with their pruned prosecutorial authority. A power struggle has arisen between the state and the Five Tribes in particular, with jurisdictional disputes being taken to court.

“Oklahoma has been robbed of the authority to prosecute crimes,” Stitt said. “Put simply, McGirt jeopardizes justice.”

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Stitt said the state had assembled a “broad coalition” of law enforcement officials and agencies, and for “the past year, we’ve done everything we can to protect law and order and limit the impacts of this decision.”

He then pointed to “major victories” in the courts, including the SCOTUS finding that McGirt is not retroactive and that the court had agreed to consider, in Oklahoma v. Victor Castro-Huerta, whether the state could prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes against Natives in Indian Country. Stitt did not mention a recent SCOTUS decision did not overturn McGirt, and was also regarded by tribal officials as a victory.

“A win in that case would let the state go back to enforcing law and order and protecting more crime victims in Eastern Oklahoma,” Stitt said. “That’s the way we’ve done it since 1907. The new rules put the federal government in charge, and it isn’t working.”

After relating an anecdote of a 12-year-old Cherokee boy killed in Wagoner by a drunk driver, and saying the perpetrator could walk with a clean record, Stitt repeated the suggestion of tribal leaders to “work together to solve this.”

“This isn’t about winning and losing,” he said. “This isn’t personal. It’s not Kevin Stitt versus the tribes. Instead, it’s about certainty. It’s about law and order. It’s about fairness, equal protection under the law, and one set of rules.”

Tribal administrators were quick to respond. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. released a statement to the media while Stitt was still addressing lawmakers.

“It’s time for the governor to move forward and work alongside our tribes,” Hoskin said. “Tribal nations have been crucial to the successes in Oklahoma, contributing to jobs, economic growth, public safety, COVID response, health care and supporting education, communities, roads and law enforcement.”

In this Aug. 22, 2019, file photo, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., speaks during a news conference in Tahlequah, Okla. Hoskin Jr. plans to invest $16 million into the Oklahoma-based tribe's language preservation program, including a new cabinet-level position focused on its language, culture and community. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

Hoskin took note of Stitt’s example of the Wagoner boy, but suggested the state is more interested in lawsuits than cooperation.

“The way to resolve these matters is to bring everyone together -- tribes, state leaders, law enforcement, Congress, and local officials -- to develop real solutions, not to seek endless litigation that creates headlines but not much else,” Hoskin said.

Tribes have worked with all levels of law enforcement since McGirt, Hoskin said,

“Meanwhile, Governor Stitt prioritized creating instability across Oklahoma, with nothing to show for his quest to overturn McGirt but millions of wasted Oklahoma taxpayer dollars, and lost time that could have been spent working collaboratively on our shared safety goals,” he said.

Hoskin said the tribal governments have an autonomy that Oklahoma and Stitt must acknowledge.

“The relationship between the state of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation is one between a state and a sovereign nation, one with specific rights, with a system of justice and with a separate jurisdiction,” Hoskin said. “We do not advocate for unequal rules, or for discrimination, as Oklahoma’s governor seems to claim. We seek the same ideals as we have for over a century, working together as a partner.”

Watch: Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. recently spoke with ICT's Aliyah Chavez

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