Supreme Court ruling to change judicial process for tribal members in much of Oklahoma

Landmark decision reaffirms tribal sovereignty

WYANDOTTE, Okla. – “When it comes to the Supreme Court, tribes have never faired very well,” says Wyandotte Nation Chief Billy Friend.

A history of only occasional victories in the nation’s highest court is a big part of why local tribal leaders were surprised after a recent decision by the United State Supreme Court.

“This is definitely, you know, a landmark victory for tribes,” says Friend.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case McGirt v. Oklahoma. In which, Jimcy McGirt argued that he could only be prosecuted in federal court because he is a Native American, and the alleged crime happened on Muscogee Creek Nation tribal land. The Muscogee Creek Nation ended up getting involved in the case. The court ruled that the land, which includes much of Tulsa, was not disestablished when the state was established, so the land is still part of the Muscogee Creek Nation Reservation. Meaning that indigenous people who commit crimes on the reservation cannot be prosecuted by state or local courts, but instead by tribal or federal courts.

The ruling will likely be applied to the other tribes in the Five Civilized Tribes, which includes the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole Nations.

Ok Tribal Jurisdictions

Map showing the jurisdiction of Oklahoma’s Native American Tribes.
Source: Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

Wyandotte Nation Chief Billy Friend says the decision doesn’t have any immediate or direct applications for tribes in Ottawa County.

“Not that other tribes couldn’t be impacted by this, but other tribes have individual treaties and we’re individual governments. And so, we would have to bring those cases before the Supreme Court ourselves,” explains Friend.

Friend also explains that, within the Wyandotte Nation, if a Native American commits a crime against another Native American, it’s prosecuted in their tribal courts. But if it involves someone who isn’t a Native American, it would be prosecuted in state or federal court.

“In 1887, there was what they call the General Allotment Act. And the intent of that was to break up the reservations. It allowed each tribe to allot [land] to each family. Because at that time the tribes owned the land in a communal type system,” says Friend. “We have what we call trust land. We have around 500 acres of our former 20 thousand acres in what we call federal trust. And so, we can prosecute those crimes that happen on that limited trust land. But we don’t have jurisdiction over the 20-thousand acres that was formerly our reservation. So, in the Creek case, what happened is they figured out the reservation had never been disestablished. And so that huge piece of land that was once the reservation that now Tulsa, Broken Arrow, a lot of these big cities, now all of a sudden it’s a reservation once again.”

Since the Wyandotte Nation was disestablished, Friend says it would be difficult for the Wyandotte Nation to do the same thing that the Muscogee Creek Nation did. But, he says it’s still a big victory for Native American Tribes across the state.

“We signed 19 treaties over several years with the federal government, and most of those treaties were broken by the federal government. And so, I think that this latest ruling is really, it’s a historic step forward in reaffirming tribal sovereignty,” says Friend. “When it came out, I’m sure there were a lot of war hoops across the United States from Indian tribes as a sign of victory.”