Sovereignty. It is, perhaps, the foundational element of any people’s existence. Self-determination and self-government, and the formal recognition of such is essential for any group of people whether they be a nation, a state, or even a county or a city. For the majority of America, each day progresses into the next without any thought or even concern about this because such things have been in place generation after generation.
For Native Americans however, this has been a very different experience. Treaties established so many generations ago aren’t known by most people in our modern United States, including those who may hold office within our government. History, as often is the case, isn’t the foremost on anyone’s mind which is why there is always a present danger of repeating it.
While the Native America SuperPAC and its outreach, Native America Action, continue to focus on protecting Native Sovereignty in the activities and actions within our Legislative or the Executive branches of Federal and State Governments, there is something occurring right now on the Judicial side that has our full attention. It is about Sovereignty. …and it is a compelling and intriguing situation.
The State of Oklahoma is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review an “Indian Country” ruling that would create the requirement for a “new” kind of federal recognition. This request comes because the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a decision of a murder case in favor of a Creek Nation citizen. This murder case became unique due to the assertion by the defense that United States Congress never went through the proper process to eliminate or dissolve the treaty established boundaries of the Creek Nation as set in 1866, and as such the State of Oklahoma was wrong to prosecute his case. Pausing the many questions that spring to mind regarding the specifics of the case, it is clear the State of Oklahoma has grave concerns about their State Sovereignty.
Keep in mind, Native Nation’s treaty rights, and treaty recognition, is a sharp thorn that Native Americans feel nearly daily for many different reasons in many different locations across the United States. It also cannot be said that these treaties are truly forgotten as many remain today “on the books” with the Federal government. Yet, their very existence is often forgotten or an inconvenience for State and Federal agencies, if they are known at all. Perhaps it is better said in our modern day that treaties are simply ignored. That may be a strong word, but it is nonetheless true. A less strong description would be that long-established treaties are not known or understood today… Not by those working within State and Federal agencies, and not by elected members of our U.S. Congress.
In its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, the State of Oklahoma’s Attorney General makes the case for State Sovereignty. From Oklahoma’s perspective, this is a valid concern. The decision as it stands would formally recognize the Creek Nation’s boundaries, which have simply been ignored by the growth of the State of Oklahoma with the passage of time. The reestablishment of these boundaries where law enforcement of Creek Nation citizens is concerned puts the 11 Oklahoma counties suddenly within and under the jurisdiction of the Creek Nation. As a sovereign nation with a standing treaty made between them and the United States Congress, the Creek Nation’s laws and enforcement would be applied to these counties instead of State and Local law enforcement.
Naturally, this concerns State officials. It is an understandable position. For many generations the State of Oklahoma has grown and these 11 counties are Oklahoma counties. Yet perspective here helps. This ruling creates an inconvenience for the State of Oklahoma in reality because it is “re-recognizing” the Creek Nation… …as it was originally recognized by the United States when they so inconveniently forced the Creek Nation’s removal to Indian Territory. It wasn’t convenient for the Creek Nation then, and the established boundaries as recognized were hung on the promise that the United States would respect them. As generations seemingly passed, the treaty and promises went from ignored to forgotten to possibly even unknown by people today. The perceived and or actual loss of Sovereignty is scary.
Oklahoma’s Attorney General asserts in its petition that stripping Oklahoma of criminal jurisdiction over all Indians in this densely populated area – would render Oklahoma a fractured, second-class State. Further, their assertion is that federal agents would be required to enforce the laws within the Creek Nation boundaries. This premise of this assertion stems from the original established treaties with Native Nations. Only U.S. Congress can ratify a treaty with a sovereign nation, and as such only the Federal government can interact with a federally recognized Native Nation. However, the Attorney General’s assertion goes too far. The Creek Nation today works with Local and State law enforcement agencies. It would and should be up to the Creek Nation as to how law enforcement is to proceed if this ruling stands. Should the Creek Nation be interested, no doubt it could come to agreements with the State of Oklahoma as to how law enforcement should work going forward. Perhaps everything continues as it does today with the exception that the Creek Nation has jurisdiction and enforces them with establishing new agreements with Local and State law enforcement agencies. Of course, this could depend on how strong a relationship the State of Oklahoma has fostered with the Creek Nation. If it is healthy, with the appropriate earned trust on both sides, this need not be an issue. If the State doesn’t have a healthy relationship, perhaps the Creek Nation would instead engage and hire its own law enforcement to cover the area. In any case, the assertion that the FBI somehow would now provide Local and State enforcement for the Creek Nation may well be an overreaching assertion on the Attorney General’s part.
Then there is a matter of history. Oklahoma became a state in 1907. It is possible that most Oklahomans aren’t even aware of how difficult a process this was. In reality, the “state” at the time was very fractured and in fact was two very different territories, Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory. But Indian Territory existed first and was originally established to be the home for relocated Native communities and nations. Certainly the Five Civilized Tribes, upon relocation, provided a strong leadership role for the region. The land rush, authorized by Congress in spite of previous promises, opened up new land within the territory for settlement in 1889 and eventually the Oklahoma Territory would be carved out of what had been provided for Natives. Yet, it was the Five Civilized tribes who first submitted a petition to U.S. Congress for statehood in 1905, with proposed State of Sequoyah. Because there are too many (yet historically interesting) reasons at the time to describe, Congress did not grant this request. Eventually Congress did act upon taking both the Oklahoma territory and the Indian Territory and making them a state – but not without a struggle and a fight between the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In reality, the State of Oklahoma began its very existence fractured. Such is the state’s history – unique perhaps from which it was born, but that uniqueness continues today whether it is fully recognized by the State that contains 39 federally recognized Native tribes or not.
The U.S. Department of Justice provided a filing that underscored its concern that this matter could have significant and wide-ranging implications for law enforcement if allowed to stand, echoing perhaps the concern of Oklahoma’s Attorney General. To this, it is easy to agree while disagreeing about the outcome. The 10th Circuit Court has (finally) brought to light the inconvenient truth that has always existed – it was originally ignored, then forgotten, then it was as if it never had been – the Creek Nation’s boundaries have been intruded upon and its Sovereignty has been disregarded by both the Federal Government of the United States as well as the State Government of Oklahoma. In truth, so many citizens of the great State of Oklahoma and the Creek Nation have been living fractured, burdened by this lack of recognition, this lack of understanding, and this lack of respect… …for Sovereignty.
It is unknown what the U.S. Supreme Court will see fit to do, but let us not pretend that the State of Oklahoma isn’t already fractured. Depending on the census year, Oklahoma is home to the second largest population of Native Americans. Yes, it is the great State of Oklahoma, and there is no reason that this cannot continue. If anything, should this ruling stand, the Creek Nation will be in a position to work with the United States and the State of Oklahoma to help chart Oklahoma’s future. They will add their voice to the voice of the State, and we will all be stronger for it because – we are stronger together.
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