Oklahoma Tribes Reach Deal With State on Case Jurisdiction

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) — Oklahoma’s Five Tribes and state leaders announced an agreement Thursday to clarify the state’s criminal and civil jurisdiction on tribal lands, a week after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled large portions of eastern Oklahoma remain tribal.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, a Republican, said the state and the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole nations reached the agreement “based on trust and mutual respect.” They will now present the agreement to Oklahoma’s congressional delegation for it to become federal law.

(Photo via Muscogee (Creek) Nation/Smithsonian Institution)

The deal affirms the tribes’ criminal jurisdiction through the territories regarding Native American offenders while affirming the state’s criminal jurisdiction over all offenders in the same areas. There is an exception to state authority regarding Native Americans committing crimes on “Indian trust or restricted” lands that in some cases have never been allotted.

Hunter’s announcement comes seven days after the nation’s highest court ruled the state incorrectly tried and convicted a Seminole man of raping a child while on Creek tribal lands, finding he should have been tried in federal court. An Oklahoma jury sentenced him to life in state prison.

In a 5-4 majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that Congress never disestablished Native American reservations in the area.

“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law,” the July 9 opinion states. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”

Gorsuch was not persuaded by Oklahoma’s argument that it had the authority to close the reservations.

“Under our Constitution, states have no authority to reduce federal reservations lying within their borders,” he wrote in the 42-page majority ruling. “Just imagine if they did. A state could encroach on the tribal boundaries or legal rights Congress provided, and, with enough time and patience, nullify the promises made in the name of the United States. That would be at odds with the Constitution, which entrusts Congress with the authority to regulate commerce with Native Americans, and directs that federal treaties and statutes are the ‘supreme Law of the Land.’”

Regarding civil matters, the tribes agree they “do not have civil jurisdiction over non-members outside Indian trust or restricted lands” except for matters that federal law specifically grants them jurisdiction over, such as contracts with a tribe. The agreement further grants the tribes jurisdiction over tribal “self-governance or the economic security, health, or welfare” of a tribe.

“Our goal is to see these principles implemented in appropriate federal law for purposes of enhancing and clarifying respective state and tribal jurisdiction, both criminal and civil, without limiting the jurisdiction or immunities of either the state or nation,” the two-page agreement states.

The state’s civil jurisdiction over all people on tribal lands is affirmed, but Oklahoma will lack the authority to regulate or tax any tribe, tribal official or entity.

Hunter said his office and the Five Tribes will continue to iron out details regarding law enforcement and child welfare matters on tribal lands.

“My commitment to our tribal partners is to work together to forge common ground on the issues brought to light by this case,” the attorney general said in a statement. “Oklahoma’s tribal nations are a fundamental part of Oklahoma’s culture, economy, politics and governance.”

Principal Chief David Hill with the Creek Nation said the high court ruled what his people already know, that “we are a sovereign nation with a sovereign territory” in Oklahoma.

“While the ruling does leave questions for us to answer as we move forward, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is confident that our past work with state and federal agencies has prepared us for this significant moment in our history,” Hill said. “Tribal nations have successfully collaborated with law enforcement for years in the communities we share, and this ruling only strengthens our ability to work together for the betterment of public safety for all Oklahomans.”

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