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Oklahoma tribes to Gov. Stitt after Castro-Huerta decision: come to the table and move forward

J. Scott Applewhite

Tribal leaders across Oklahoma and beyond are reacting tolast week's U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta case, saying the ruling upends more than 100 years of federal Indian law. The high court's ruling gives the state more authority in prosecuting crimes committed on tribal lands.

A statement put out by the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes called the decision shocking and disconcerting, adding that it goes against the basic principles of congressional authority as well as Indian law.

Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill contends the decision purports to extend not only to reservation land, but to trust and restricted land — which is unprecedented.

The National Congress of American Indians is calling on Congress to respond, and agrees with tribal nations in Oklahoma that the ruling is a blow to tribal sovereignty.

Tribal nations in Oklahoma say they want Gov. Kevin Stitt to come to the table and meet with the tribes on matters of public safety.

After the decision was released, both Stitt and Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor said they were celebrating the ruling, with O'Connor saying that he was pleased that the nation's highest court "declined to treat Indian victims as second class citizens."

Below are excerpts from statements made by tribal leaders in Oklahoma, leaders at the National Congress of American Indian and the Native American Rights Fund after the decision was made by the U.S. Supreme Court:

Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes:
“The June 29 decision by the United States Supreme Court in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta ruling against legal precedent and the basic principles of congressional authority, as well as Indian law, is disconcerting and shocking. This decision will greatly impact tribal nations not just in Oklahoma, but throughout Indian Country. We agree with the dissent in this decision, which noted that the Supreme Court failed in its duty to honor the United States’ legal promises and instead intruded on a matter of tribal sovereignty that has been recognized since the Nation’s founding. Justice Gorsuch said it best in his dissenting opinion, ‘[w]here this Court once stood firm, today it wilts.’

Quapaw Nation's Chairman Joseph Byrd:
The ruling is a reversal of the precedent set in the landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling only two years ago, which cited more than 120 years of federal law granting federal courts "exclusive jurisdiction" to try "all criminal causes for the punishment of any offense."

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion in McGirt v. Oklahoma, led a scathing dissent in Castro v. Huerta. Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan joined him. He dissented, in part, by saying:

“This Court has no business usurping congressional decisions about the appropriate balance between federal, tribal, and state interests. If the Court’s ruling today sounds like a legislative committee report touting the benefits of some newly proposed bill, that’s because it is exactly that. And given that a nine-member court is a poor substitute for the people’s elected representatives, it is no surprise that the Court’s cost-benefit analysis is radically incomplete. The Court’s decision is not a judicial interpretation of the law’s meaning; it is the pastiche of a legislative process.”

Quapaw Nation Business Committee Chairman Joseph Tali Byrd joined Gorsuch's scathing review of the majority opinion.

"Today, the United States Supreme Court rendered a decision that is an affront on tribal sovereignty and erodes centuries of well-settled federal Indian Law. By inserting itself into an area reserved specifically for Congress, SCOTUS signals that plenary power is no longer absolute when it comes to Indian affairs," Chairman Byrd said.

Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton:
“We are extremely disappointed in this ruling, in part because it appears to rely on faulty information provided by the opposition,” he said. “Of course, we respect the authority of the Supreme Court, and we will integrate this into our continued efforts to provide effective criminal justice in our reservation as we work with law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, local and tribal level.”

“To be clear, this ruling does not affect the main holding of the McGirt decision, which affirmed tribal sovereignty and requires the United States to uphold its treaty obligations,” he said.

“Our focus remains on protecting our members, as well as all 4 million Oklahoma residents,” he said.

Native American Rights Fund and The National Congress of American Indians:
“The Supreme Court’s decision today is an attack on tribal sovereignty and the hard-fought progress of our ancestors to exercise our inherent sovereignty over our own territories,” said National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) President Fawn Sharp. “It was only a few months ago that Congress loudly supported tribal sovereignty and tribal criminal jurisdiction with the passage of the Violence Against Women’s Act, reaffirming the right of Tribal Nations to protect their own people and communities, but make no mistake, today, the Supreme Court has dealt a massive blow to tribal sovereignty and Congress must, again, respond.”

Cherokee Nation:
“With today’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against legal precedent and the basic principles of congressional authority and Indian law. During arguments, Justice Gorsuch asked if the Court would ‘wilt today because of a social media campaign’ – it is unfortunate that the answer appears to be yes. The dissent today did not mince words – the Court failed in its duty to honor this nation’s promises, defied Congress’s statutes, and accepted the ‘lawless disregard of the Cherokee’s sovereignty.’

While we are disappointed in this ruling, it does not diminish our commitment to meeting our public safety responsibilities and to protecting Oklahomans on our reservations and across the state. Tribal and federal jurisdiction remain unchanged by this decision, but the need to work together on behalf of Oklahomans has never been more clear.

Also unchanged is the affirmation of our reservation and our sovereignty. Despite the Oklahoma governor’s lies and attacks, the Court has refused to overturn the McGirt decision.

Muscogee Nation:
Today’s ruling also purports to expand the State of Oklahoma’s authority on reservation lands to unprecedented levels to include concurrent jurisdiction on trust and restricted lands. This will have a ripple effect throughout Indian Country across the United States.

Tribal governments in collaboration with the federal government are best suited to protect our people and administer justice on our reservations. Public safety would be better served by expanding Tribal authority to prosecute any crime committed by any offender within our reservation boundaries rather than empowering entities that have demonstrated a lack of commitment to public safety on Indian lands.

We look forward to collaborating with Members of Congress and the federal government to identify all options available to empower Tribal governments to ensure the safety and prosperity of all who reside, work or visit our reservation. This is a pivotal moment for all tribal nations.

Chickasaw Nation's Governor Bill Anoatubby:
“The Supreme Court's decision in Castro-Huerta is unsettling to criminal justice administration throughout the Western United States. This ruling does not change our sovereignty, and the Chickasaw Nation will continue to administer justice programs within our boundaries.”

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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