Justice

About Half Of Oklahoma Is Native Land, SCOTUS Rules In Landmark Case

A majority of justices ruled that about half of Oklahoma is Native American land in an opinion praised by tribal leaders.

Getty Images / Mary DeBarry, right, of the Chippewa-Cree tribe, Rocky Boy Mont., and Woody Hansen, of the Cherokee tribe, Okla., listen to Senators speak at a rally urging the Senate to reauthorize the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act. Hansen is from one of the tribes affected by the Supreme Court's June 9 decision.

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that much of eastern Oklahoma falls within a Native American reservation in a landmark ruling that will likely have major implications for the state’s future and past criminal cases.

The court was tasked to decide whether the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's lands had remained a reservation based on promises made in a treaty and that they maintained a certain amount of sovereign authority over the land. A 5-4 decision, with Justices Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Stephen G. Breyer in the majority, determined that it was. Justices John G. Roberts Jr., Brett M. Kavanaugh, Samuel A. Alito Jr., and Clarence Thomas dissented.

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

The decision involved a case regarding Jimcy McGirt, who was convicted of three serious sexual offenses by an Oklahoma state court. McGirt argued that he couldn’t be convicted by the state because he is a member of the Seminole Nation and his crimes took place on the Creek reservation. His argument was based on the Major Crimes Act (MCA), which gives federal authorities jurisdiction over crimes involving Native people on Native American land — meaning only the federal courts, not the state, may try such a crime.

The issues raised a broader question of if the land is still the Creek’s reservation based on a treaty from nearly two centuries ago. In the treaty, the U.S. government agreed that in exchange for ceding “all their land, East of the Mississippi river,” the Creek country west of the Mississippi “shall be solemnly guarantied to the Creek Indians.” 

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The ruling will affect the Creek reservation and four other Oklahoma tribes with identical treaties, NPR reported. It means that Indigenous people who commit crimes in the eastern part of the state cannot be prosecuted by state or local law enforcement and must instead be tried in tribal or federal courts. In his dissent, Roberts also said the decision “draws into question” past convictions of Indigenous people that were previously prosecuted by state law enforcement.

“Here those burdens—the product of a century of settled understanding—are extraordinary. Most immediately, the Court’s decision draws into question thousands of convictions obtained by the State for crimes involving Indian defendants or Indian victims across several decades. This includes convictions for serious crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping, and maiming. Such convictions are now subject to jurisdictional challenges, leading to the potential release of numerous individuals found guilty under state law of the most grievous offenses,” the dissent stated. “Although the federal government may be able to reprosecute some of these crimes, it may lack the resources to reprosecute all of them, and the odds of convicting again are hampered by the passage of time, stale evidence, fading memories, and dead witnesses.”

Creek leaders praised the decision and said they would work with state and federal law enforcement authorities to establish public safety measures in the reservation, The New York Times reported

“This is a historic day,” Muscogee Principal Chief David Hill told The Times. “This is amazing. It’s never too late to make things right.”

In a joint statement following the court’s decision,, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said that the state and the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations are working on an agreement to present to Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve jurisdictional issues presented by the court’s decision. 

“The Nations and the State are committed to implementing a framework of shared jurisdiction that will preserve sovereign interests and rights to self-government while affirming jurisdictional understandings, procedures, laws, and regulations that support public safety, our economy, and private property rights,” it read. “We will continue our work, confident that we can accomplish more together than any of us could alone.”