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Supreme Court Ruling Has Big Implications For Native American Sovereignty


A landmark ruling from the Supreme Court yesterday has significant implications for Native American sovereignty. The decision centered on a Seminole man convicted in an Oklahoma state court. The Supreme Court ruled that he should have been tried in the federal system. And as a result of this particular case, the Supreme Court ended up declaring that about half of the land in the state of Oklahoma is tribal. Allison Herrera of member station KOSU reports.

ALLISON HERRERA, BYLINE: The central question in the case - who has jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by Indians on Indian land? The Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision said the federal government does, not states. The court also decided another key question - were the Muscogee Creek Nation's boundaries in Oklahoma, as set by a treaty the tribe signed with Congress in 1866, ever dissolved? The court said no. Historically, tribes have not fared well at the Supreme Court. Attorney General for the Cherokee Nation, Sara Hill, wrote a brief in support of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She was surprised by the ruling and says it reaffirms tribal sovereignty.

SARA HILL: There's an emotional reaction to seeing the Supreme Court say what, you know, tribes and tribal advocates have been saying for a long time, which is that these promises that were made in these treaties had meaning.

HERRERA: At issue now is what happens to other felony convictions on Native American land in Oklahoma that were tried in state courts. Hill believes it won't be an issue because the state and the tribes have a long history of cooperating.

HILL: And I don't see anything in the court's opinion that makes me feel like it raises issues that can't be solved by the state and the tribes working together to make sure that its citizens are protected.

HERRERA: After the decision, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter released a joint statement with the tribes. Hunter says the state and tribes are confident they can reach an agreement involving criminal jurisdiction. He says even before the Supreme Court's decision, they were already working on it.

MIKE HUNTER: This opinion doesn't vitiate land titles or existing contracts or interests in real - any interest in real property. It's limited to the Major Crimes Act - the federal Major Crimes Act.

HERRERA: Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt still has questions because he believes the ruling opens the door for other issues, such as taxation. Even the court's dissenting justices said it could affect a variety of other noncriminal issues.

KEVIN STITT: This is a federal issue and something that the Congress needs to address to put some parameters and see exactly how we're supposed to deal with this.

HERRERA: For Native Americans, the ruling is a profound win. Advocates say it will give them greater leverage, such as when they negotiate with states on environmental issues like protecting land and water resources. Attorney General Hill of the Cherokee Nation applauds the Supreme Court ruling, but she's still cautious.

HILL: I mean, the actual day-to-day issues that Indigenous people or tribal people face in the state, those - making sure that those are resolved and making sure that the tribal sovereignty is respected, all of those things, those fights will still continue.

HERRERA: Fights like other criminal justice issues and ongoing negotiations about gaming compacts. In Oklahoma, there are 39 federally recognized tribes, and for now, they and the state pledge to keep working together to sort through the implications of the Supreme Court ruling. For NPR News, I'm Allison Herrera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD'S "ETHIOBIRDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Herrera joined KOSU in November 2015, after serving as the editor of the award-winning online publication the Twin Cities Daily Planet.