Law & Principles

Governor notes Oklahoma ‘reservations’ not normal

Ray Carter | February 6, 2024

In 2020, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, the court declared that the historic reservation of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and by extension several other tribes, were never formally disestablished for purposes of federal major-crimes law.

Since then, officials with the affected tribes have claimed to operate tribal reservations like those found in several other states and have even argued in court that tribal members living on those lands in Oklahoma are exempt from paying state income taxes, facing local speeding tickets, and even obeying agricultural regulations.

But during this year’s “State of the State” address, Gov. Kevin Stitt bluntly noted that those supposed reservations in Oklahoma have no relationship to Native American reservations in other states.

“Here’s the deal: Things are different in Oklahoma than they are in places like Arizona,” Stitt said. “Arizona has the Navajo Reservation. And it is true tribal members who live on the Navajo Reservation do not pay taxes to the state of Arizona. But here’s what’s also true: The State of Arizona doesn’t build roads on the reservation. They don’t fund hospitals. They don’t fund public schools or airports on the reservation. They don’t send the Arizona Highway Patrol to enforce laws on the reservation.”

Lower courts have cited McGirt to declare the reservations of several other tribes were never properly disestablished at Oklahoma statehood, including the historic reservations of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, and Quapaw.

The areas impacted by McGirt now cover about 42 percent of the state of Oklahoma. The vast majority of people living in those areas, which includes most of Tulsa, are not Native Americans.

As a result of McGirt, crimes committed by American Indians against non-Indians in those areas cannot be prosecuted by the state of Oklahoma, nor can they be prosecuted by tribal officials. Instead, those cases are handled by federal law enforcement officials.

In many instances, district attorneys have indicated many crimes go unprosecuted by federal officials, other than the most serious such as murder or rape.

“Three years after McGirt, we are still operating under a confusing and conflicting patchwork of jurisdiction across our state,” Stitt noted. “It is imperative that we clarify our law enforcement relationships immediately. That’s why I created the One Oklahoma Task Force to come up with cross-deputization and jail agreements. I hope that this task force can work to find a solution that protects the safety of all four million Oklahomans, regardless of their race or their heritage, and I hope the tribes will choose to participate.”

The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes—a group that includes the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole tribes—previously denounced any effort to address public-safety concerns through Stitt’s task force.

“The Five Tribes cannot participate in an effort that spreads falsehoods about the law, attempts to minimize tribal voices, and engages in political attacks instead of constructive government-to-government dialogue,” the group said in a statement.

The statement did not identify any “falsehoods.”

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., waved off the fact that the Oklahoma Cherokee “reservation” is not like any longstanding tribal reservation found elsewhere in the nation.

“The Governor tries to make comparisons in his state of the state between the Navajo Reservation and Cherokee Nation Reservation that simply don’t exist,” Hoskin tweeted.

House Democratic Leader Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, also complained about Stitt noting the differences between longstanding tribal reservations and those effectively established in 2020 by the McGirt ruling.

“His comparison to what’s happening in Arizona to Oklahoma is unacceptable,” Munson said.

She noted that Oklahoma tribal governments do provide some funding for schools and roads.

However, those funds may often be federal dollars that simply pass through tribal governments.

Hoskin wrote that the Cherokee Nation has provided “over $84 million to public school classrooms.”

But that sum equates to just eight-tenths of 1 percent of total school funding in Oklahoma. According to Oklahoma State Department of Education data, public-school district expenditures in 2023 totaled $9,538,453,992.67.

David Hill, principal chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, claimed that the McGirt ruling “has not caused confusion,” and said any cooperation with Stitt’s office to address McGirt issues would “undermine tribal jurisdiction and result in fewer police, fewer courts,and fewer prosecutors to keep our communities safe,” even though tribal police have no authority to enforce the law in many situations on the property lying within their historic reservation lines.

Stitt urged policymakers to join him in resolving the many problems created by the McGirt ruling to ensure that all Oklahomans receive the same treatment under the law.

“We can’t be a state that operates with two different sets of rules,” Stitt said, “especially based on race.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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