After Gov. Kevin Stitt called on Native tribes Friday to begin negotiations with the state on issues that could arise as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision, the Cherokee Nation responded by emphasizing the balance between its interests and the state's.
Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the tribe is working toward an outcome that will fully preserve its sovereignty, while protecting the public safety of Cherokee citizens and all Oklahomans.
In McGirt v. Oklahoma, the high court ruled the reservation of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was never disestablished, and that Jimcy McGirt, a convicted child molester, should have been tried in federal, rather than state, court. Because of similar legal history, other courts have declared the ruling applies to the other four of the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations.
“Under Oklahoma law, which is consistent with Oklahoma’s Constitution, the governor of Oklahoma has the authority to negotiate and enter into cooperative agreements on behalf of the state of Oklahoma’s Native American tribes,” said Stitt. “Oklahoma law also allows me to designate a lead negotiator for the state, and for this role I am designating Ryan Leonard, special counsel for Native American Affairs.”
Leonard, an Oklahoma City lawyer, originally joined Stitt’s team in October as special counsel for Native American affairs.
Not long after the McGirl ruling, the Cherokee Nation and other tribes started work to expand their criminal justice systems, since the case prompted the case to assert that specific crimes involving Natives on tribal land must be prosecuted in federal or tribal courts. Meanwhile, in recent months, people convicted of crimes in state courts have filed motions for dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
“As all who have read the Supreme Court’s opinion know, the McGirt decision was limited to matters of criminal jurisdiction,” said Stitt. “In that regard, ensuring the public safety of all Oklahomans and providing certainty and adequate resources for the men and women in law enforcement in eastern Oklahoma is of paramount importance. As things stand today, crimes are going unpunished, and convicted criminals are seeking to be set free. We can’t allow this to happen.”
The Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations have pushed for Congress recently to establish legislation that would allow tribes the option to compact with the state on jurisdiction issues regarding the criminal justice system.
“As we have said for a while, we believe the path is clear on criminal jurisdiction issues: federal legislation should authorize compacting between the Cherokee Nation and the state,” said Hoskin. “Compacting on these criminal matter will give tribes additional options to enforce the law without restricting the decisions of tribes that do not choose to use them. On civil and taxation issues, as always we are ready to work with the state. The Cherokee Nation will continue to be a good partner in this state as it has proved for more than a century. Our objective remains to reach tribal and state agreements that are not based on fear or bias, but facts, and demonstrate a respect for tribal sovereignty.”
It is unclear, however, if the other three of the Five Civilized Tribes will jump on board with the push for federal legislation. In late October 2020, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill, Choctaw Nation Gary Batton, and Seminole Nation Chief Greg Chilcoat came out in opposition of congressional action following the McGirt ruling.
“We stand ready to address any issues following the McGirt ruling through respectful government to government interactions, just as Oklahoma tribes have always done,” Chilcoat said at the time. “However, congressional involvement is unnecessary and undermines the sovereignty of all tribal nations.”