Abuse of tribal police alleged in Cherokee Nation
August 30, 2021
When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which effectively decided that Indian reservations comprise most of eastern Oklahoma, it stripped the Oklahoma state government of the ability to prosecute crimes committed by or against American Indians in those areas.
Tribal leaders have suggested tribal police forces will fill much of the gap. But many Cherokees indicate their tribal police have too often been used as political enforcers rather than as law-enforcement officials in the 14 counties that comprise the Cherokee Nation.
In addition, they note control of tribal police and tribal courts is held by a handful of officials who assume power via tribal elections conducted under circumstances that provide reason to question their validity.
“Because the laws have changed and the McGirt law is in effect now, they feel like they can do whatever, whenever they get ready,” said Bobby Slover, who ran for Cherokee Nation Tribal Council District 2 this year. “And it’s a proven fact they can, because they did it to me.”
During his campaign, Slover vowed to increase “corporate accountability and transparency within the administration” and bring “money back to tribal members rather than to outside interests.” That message drew strong support. Then, days before the election, he was abruptly arrested and placed in jail by tribal police for a campaign-finance violation. Slover had received a $1,000 contribution from a friend who wrote the check on a business account rather than from a personal checking account.
“We have a law that says that you have to receive the money from a natural person, but you also have six months to amend your financials,” said David Walkingstick, who served for eight years on the Cherokee Nation council and ran for Cherokee Nation principal chief in 2019. “There’s been other council members that have received money, in-kind contributions, from someone outside the natural person and the election commission said, ‘Hey, you have an error. You need to come in and fix this.’ Within 72 hours of Bobby writing this on his campaign financial (report), the attorney general was issuing a warrant out for Bobby Slover’s arrest.”
Critics say Slover’s arrest was not only in contrast with the treatment given to other tribal political candidates, but in contrast to the treatment given to individuals who committed far more serious crimes. The latter group includes two Cherokees accused of murdering Slover’s son, who he said were released “three days after it happened” and have yet to be tried.
“We’ve got murderers that’s on the street, and it p----s me off when I think about it, because the people that murdered my son are still on the street, and it’s like it’s nothing,” Slover said. “And I took a $1,000 check from a company that, actually, I didn’t know it was an LLC at the time. I had four or five checks that I had deposited in the bank and I just seen the $1,000 and just deposited it. They took that, throwed me in jail. But on a criminal case, they just slap them on the hand and do nothing.”
Law Enforcement, Court Positions, Tied to Political Patronage
Critics say there is not enough separation between the executive and judicial branches in the Cherokee government.
The Cherokee Nation principal chief, a position currently held by Chuck Hoskin, Jr., appoints both tribal supreme court justices and the tribe’s attorney general, who oversees the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service. While those appointments must be confirmed by the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council, the system can result in one individual or small group having significant power over both arrests and subsequent trials
“We’ve now allowed this administration to gain complete control over all three branches of government, essentially,” said Cherokee Nation District 3 Tribal Councilor Wes Nofire.
That causes critics to question the validity of the tribal law-enforcement and court systems.
“Our judges are politically appointed. They’re not voted on by the citizens,” Walkingstick said. “They’re politically appointed by the chief and the tribal council. When you’ve got that much power, that’s dangerous. That’s absolute power.”
Nofire praised the individuals who work as Cherokee marshals, saying they “are, bar none, the best in the country when it comes to marshal services, but they’re being used for political purposes.”
Slover said when one individual or group owns “the judge, the jury and the house,” that means all others are “going to lose when you go to court.”
“It doesn’t matter who you hire as an attorney. It does not matter,” Slover said. “You can hire the best attorney in the world, but you are going to lose when you walk out of that courtroom.”
Allegations of Cherokee Tribal-Police Abuse Extend Across Oklahoma—and Beyond
Slover is not the only Cherokee to face alleged political harassment from Cherokee marshals.
In 2019, when Walkingstick ran for chief, he said a family member was targeted.
“While I was running, I had the marshals show up to my mother’s house and tell her her Miranda rights,” Walkingstick said. “My mother’s 70 years old and she started bawling her eyes out. She thought she was getting arrested. These marshals, they’re just doing what they’re told to do. They don’t like being used for political purposes, but there’s not a lot of work around here either.”
Walkingstick said his mother drew attention because of her involvement with Cherokees for Change, which he described as an advocacy organization that speaks out against tribal corruption.
Oklahoma state Sen. Shane Jett, a Shawnee Republican and Cherokee who co-founded the Oklahoma Legislature’s first official Native American caucus, was among those who supported Walkingstick’s campaign for tribal chief in 2019. During that time, Jett said he was contacted by Cherokee tribal law enforcement “every 72 hours” to “ask me if I was in the 14 counties because they wanted me to come in for questioning.”
Gina McKelvey said she was also targeted by Cherokee marshals.
“I kind of live out in the middle of the desert, out in the middle of nowhere, and these guys were going up and down my street, asking my neighbors if they knew me and showed a picture and said they were marshals,” McKelvey said.
What makes McKelvey’s case stand out is that she lives in Nevada and is not an enrolled member of the Cherokee tribe, although her great-grandfather was an enrolled member listed on the Dawes Rolls, the official federal government list of all individuals accepted as members of the Five Tribes (Cherokee, Muscogee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole) between 1898 and 1914.
While the Cherokee marshals ultimately did not access her property, McKelvey said it represented an abuse of power.
“I couldn’t believe that they would cross jurisdiction like that, just to bully and interrogate me,” McKelvey said.
Reports of McKelvey’s harassment quickly travelled from Nevada to Oklahoma.
“I’ve got that information confirmed that they did send armed marshals onto an airline to go survey a protective order—or at least that’s what it’s thought to be, a protective order—to a person who’s not even an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and it’s outside of our boundaries,” Nofire said.
McKelvey believes she was targeted for alleged violations of the “Anti-Harassment Act of 2021” enacted by the Cherokee council on June 14. That Cherokee law defines “unlawful harassment” to include any conduct “directed at a specific person which seriously alarms, annoys, harasses, or is detrimental to such person.”
Via social media, McKelvey has been a vocal critic of Cherokee Nation leadership, although she said much of her criticism consists of “memes making fun of this administration” along with posting information on alleged corruption.
Most memes on McKelvey’s Facebook involve obvious mockery of current Cherokee Nation leadership, although others are more serious in tone. One meme stated that the Cherokee people “need to overthrow their current government and take back their tribe & dignity,” and included the hashtag, “RemoveHoskinWithForce.”
Under the Cherokee law, an anti-harassment protection order can be initially issued via “an ex parte” process—one in which action is taken without the presence of both parties—and the order can be issued “without notice.” When an order is issued, the Cherokee law says the tribal court “shall order the respondent to surrender, and prohibit the respondent from possessing, all firearms and any dangerous weapons.”
“Within Cherokee Nation, we don’t necessarily have to follow the U.S. Constitution because we’re a sovereign government—and now we’re on a reservation,” Walkingstick said. “So now the laws that the Cherokee Nation has govern the people that live on the reservation. There’s no freedom of speech. There’s no right to bear arms. The First, Second, and Fourth Amendments are being broken on the Cherokee Reservation.”
The Cherokee “Anti-Harassment Act of 2021” was approved by the Cherokee Tribal Council on a 16-1 vote with Nofire the lone dissenter. He said he was concerned the law could be “weaponized by somebody who wants to violate your American constitutional rights,” and said his biggest concerns regarded a lack of due-process rights and infringement of citizens’ First Amendment right to free speech and Second Amendment right to self-defense.
“It basically states that someone can file a civil protective order against you and they don’t have to give you notice of it that you had a civil protective order filed against you, and you don’t even have chance to plead your case, but they can still come into your home and remove your weapons if they deem you a threat without even you having representation in the courtroom,” Nofire said. “That’s a due process that you’re being denied. It’s a constitutional right.”
Campaign Irregularities, Lax Election Security
In addition to their concern about concentrated power in the hands of a few individuals who can restrict citizens’ basic rights, critics say the tribal election processes that choose Cherokee Nation leaders fall far from the standards required to build public confidence in the results.
“What the Cherokee Nation (leadership) has done to stay in power and control is they have a robust absentee-ballot program and they have zero regulations about harvesting ballots, outside of you can’t forge names on the ballots,” Jett said. “But you can go hand somebody a ballot or come and say, ‘Your ballot should have arrived in the mail today. Can we help you fill it out? Would you like to fill it out and us take it with you?’ And the candidates themselves can take that ballot and put that in the voting box. It’s insane.”
“Absentee (voting) is pretty much the focal point of our elections,” Walkingstick said. “If you don’t have absentees, you don’t win our races.”
Walkingstick said tribal officials will personally visit with tribal employees to ask if they have filled out absentee-voting request forms. After ballots are mailed, he said the tribal government can have someone sent to an employee’s home to pick up the ballot to deliver it to election officials.
“These people are afraid for their jobs,” Walkingstick said. “Cherokee Nation is the largest employer in northeast Oklahoma.”
Even under those circumstances, those who have sought to challenge the status quo have won occasional victories or come close to winning—although critics believe those close elections may have been wrongly decided.
During his campaign for Cherokee Nation Tribal Council, Slover made the runoff election and the initial tally from that round showed him trailing by seven votes. However, when Slover paid for a recount, a tribal official halted the recount and declared it illegal. Twelve challenged ballots were never counted in the election, and Slover’s request for voter-history information remained unfulfilled.
In 2019, when Walkingstick ran for chief, tribal officials accused him of illegal in-kind contributions when an independent expenditure group funded electioneering on his behalf. Walkingstick said he never had any involvement with the independent expenditure group, but he was kicked off the ballot anyway.
“They kicked David Walkingstick off the ballot—a complete kangaroo court,” said Jett, who also ran in 2015 and 2017 for a position on the Cherokee Tribal Council.
Jett said “banana republic” vote-counting irregularities have been a problem in tribal elections for some time. During a close 2011 election for Cherokee Nation chief, several hundred ballots allegedly went missing during a recount.
In response to a request for comment, particularly regarding the Slover and McElvoy cases, Cherokee Nation communications executive director Julie Hubbard stressed that the public should “be aware that Mr. Slover ran for council and Ms. McKelvey is regularly vocal on social media, pre- and post-McGirt.”
“We can find you plenty of law enforcement, city government and many Cherokee citizens who can tell you that our law enforcement work hard each day to enforce the law, which is their job,” Hubbard wrote. “We had great cross deputation agreements before McGirt and have great partnerships and have greatly expanded our criminal justice system post-McGirt.”
Although Hubbard indicated interviews could be provided with citizens who favor the current government structure and practices within the Cherokee Nation, none were provided as of publication. The request for comment was first made on Aug. 17 and a follow-up request was sent on Aug. 19.
Amidst the alleged abuse of the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service, Cherokee citizens say many crimes that have now landed in the tribe’s lap due to the McGirt ruling are sidelined.
“There’s a backlog of all these cases and there’s a lot of crime that’s going on that’s going unchecked,” Nofire said.
Under McGirt, Walkingstick noted much state responsibility has now been dropped on tribal governments “and everybody’s falling through the cracks.”
“We have over 1,300 criminal cases sitting in our judicial branch, and they are preoccupied with trying to silence people and retain power,” Walkingstick said.
“If you call the Cherokee marshals from one of the 14 counties and you go, ‘Someone is breaking in my house right now,’ they’ll say, ‘Call 9-1-1.’ Or they’ll say, ‘Call the sheriff.’ Or, if you’re in town, they’ll say, ‘Call the police,’” Jett said. “Because they do not have the manpower for the 14 counties. Especially whenever they’re distracted by all of the political intimidation they have to do.”
The combination of McGirt and the legalization of medical marijuana has resulted in significant activity by organized crime in the Cherokee Nation Reservation, Nofire said, as criminals use marijuana grow sites as fronts for other crimes and depend on the jurisdictional uncertainty created by McGirt to evade prosecution.
“These aren’t the small-time drug dealers we all worry about,” Nofire said. “These are big, criminal activities that are now setting up shop in northeast Oklahoma.”
That leaves many Cherokees feeling less secure, rather than more secure, now that their tribe’s sovereignty has been augmented by McGirt.
“We don’t feel safe,” Walkingstick said. “We don’t feel safe here on the Cherokee Reservation. And as much as the chief grandstands and talks about all these ways he’s trying to implement and beef up our judicial and law-enforcement systems, we are not safe. Me, being a Cherokee tribal citizen, I am against McGirt because of the abuse of power by the administration.”
UPDATE: Following publication of this article, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., issued a statement of response stressing that the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs has been a critic of the McGirt decision and supports overturning that ruling. Hoskin accused OCPA of holding “strong anti-tribal views” and targeting tribal sovereignty.
“Clearly, the OCPA’s goal continues to be causing unnecessary division by relying on false allegations and rhetoric to attack tribal nations,” Hoskin said.
Hoskin provided no detail to bolster his claim of false allegations in the article, and even appeared to implicitly confirm some allegations made about the use of tribal police.
“If threats are made towards Cherokee citizens, their duty is to impartially investigate,” Hoskin said. “They have the same responsibility to investigate non-violent criminal allegations.”