On July 9th the United States Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling affecting Native American tribal rights. The question before the court in “McGirt vs Oklahoma” was whether Congress eliminated the Muscogee (Creek) Indian reservation when Oklahoma became a state in 1907. In a 5-4 ruling that addressed federal criminal law inside the reservation, the court held that… Because Congress has not stated otherwise, we hold the government to its word. Land promised is still Indian land.
Since the publication of my novel on westward expansion, Palo Duro, I have frequently written posts commenting on the long history of mistreatment and broken promises towards Native Americans:
What the majority [of Indians] didn’t comprehend and couldn’t understand was that as the U.S. expansion continued westward, it meant the circumstances as well as any promises made today would change tomorrow. It mattered not that these promises were in writing. A different day, a different administration, a different treaty; each time the new document diminishing or totally negating any assurances previously given. (Standing Rock – “Water Is Life,” Mar 1, 2017)
Many of those promises were never fulfilled resulting in the Indian Wars which did not end until 1891, and the modern American Indian Movement which, since its inception in the 1960’s, has sought to focus attention on the history of broken promises made by the U.S. government to Native Americans. (Broken Promises, Nov 1, 2017)
Throughout American history Native Americans have struggled to protect their people, land, and way of life against the advancement of civilization. (Sacred Land, Dec 6, 2017)
What remains uncertain is whether the United States government will honor long standing treaty rights. (Broken Treaties, Sep 5, 2019)
For the moment, that question has been answered. Much remains to be negotiated between Muscogee leaders and federal law enforcement, but the immediate impact of the Supreme Court’s decision is that federal officers, not state authorities, will have the power to prosecute major crimes committed in the defined area (three million acres in eastern Oklahoma which includes the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second biggest city.)
The majority opinion, as expressed by Justice Neil Gorsuch, also asserts that only Congress, not the courts, has the authority to modify treaty agreements. Since no such action was ever initiated by Congress when Oklahoma achieved statehood, the ruling could also affect over two million Indians (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole) whose forced relocation to eastern Oklahoma occurred during this same historical period.
Each treaty will probably have to be adjudicated separately, however the legal precedent has now been established for the protection of tribal rights and holding the U.S. government accountable.