Story at a glance

  • The Supreme Court ruled that much of Oklahoma belongs to Native American tribes.
  • Oklahoma must now reexamine both its enforcement of criminal and tax law in these areas.
  • The area is made up of five tribal nations: the Cherokee Nation, Muscogee Nation, Seminole Nation, Chickasaw Nation and Choctow Nation.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that a disputed area including much of the city of Tulsa belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. But this tribe is just one of five that have control over much of eastern Oklahoma. Together, their nations occupy nearly 30,000 square miles, about 43 percent of Oklahoma's land mass and 48 percent of the state's population, according to court records. 

These five nations will now have to work with the state of Oklahoma to resolve questions of jurisdiction, representation and even taxation. Here’s who they are. 


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The Muscogee (Creek) Nation

Located in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, this tribal nation has about 86,100 citizens, making it the fourth largest tribe in the United States, according to the tribal government website. The tribe became involved in the case after Jimcy McGirt, a convicted rapist, challenged his conviction on the grounds that it took place on their territory — thereby exempting him to punishment under Oklahoma law. The state argued that the territory was disputed, but the Supreme Court laid the matter to rest with its decision. 

In a per curiam decision, the Supreme Court carried its ruling over from the McGirt case to another involving a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Patrick Murphy was convicted of murder after killing another man on reservation land and given the death penalty. Under the Major Crimes Act, federal authorities have jurisdiction over crimes involving Native Americans on reservation lands. Murphy could be retried in federal court, and while he has already confessed to the murder, he might escape the death sentence. 

After the decision, the tribe joined the four others and the state of Oklahoma to condemn the crimes of McGirt and others, promising "justice for the crimes for which they are accused." 

“The Supreme Court today kept the United States’ sacred promise to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation. Today’s decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our established sovereignty and territorial boundaries. We will continue to work with federal and state law enforcement agencies to ensure that public safety will be maintained throughout the territorial boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation,” the tribe said in a statement. 

The joint statement also said the parties had made “substantial progress” toward an agreement resolving jurisdictional issues, procedures, laws, and regulations that support public safety, our economy, and private property rights. The details of such an agreement have not yet been made public. 

The land belonging to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation includes much of Tulsa, a city that became the center of a national political battle over both racism and the response to the coronavirus pandemic when President Trump held a rally there on June 20. 

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In a statement, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said, "Muscogee (Creek) citizens founded Tulsa, and our successes and challenges are shared. They were before the Court’s opinion, and they will continue to be." Bynum also noted that the opinion does not affect private property ownership, so while the opinion would affect the tribe's rights to self-government, most residents will likely be unaffected.

Seminole Nation

The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma is one of three federally recognized Seminole governments and home to about 18,800 citizens. Located southwest of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation, the reservation is about 45 miles east of Oklahoma City and includes most of Seminole County. 

McGirt is a member of the tribe, which was the basis for his argument. The convicted rapist did not contest his guilt, but rather the state's conviction of the crime. Now, his case will be retried in federal court.

In joining the other nations and Oklahoma in their statement, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma committed to seeing justice served in McGirt's case. Jonodev Chaudhuri, ambassador of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and a former chief justice of the tribe's Supreme Court, told the Tulsa World that the ruling will only apply to a small subset of criminal cases on reservation lands. An analysis of an estimated 1,887 relevant cases published in The Atlantic found that less than 10 percent would qualify for retrial based on a statutory one-year time limit to file for relief. 

“All the sky-is-falling narratives were dubious at best," Chaudhuri told the Tulsa World. “This case didn’t change ownership of any land. It didn’t impact the prosecutions of non-Indians in any way. All it did was bring clarity to jurisdictional questions regarding the border, and it enhanced the Creek Nation's ability as a sovereign nation to work with other sovereign interests to protect people and to work in common interests." 

Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations

The Chickasaw Nation is home to 49,000 citizens, located in central Oklahoma, south of the Seminole Nation and bordering Texas. And while neither of the two cases the Supreme Court decided involve their members or jurisdiction specifically, the ruling has implications for the tribe’s claim to its land.

Forced by the US to sell their country in the 1832 Treaty of Pontotoc Creek, the Chickasaw arrived in Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears in 1834. There they were merged with the Choctaw tribe in what was called the Chickasaw District, located to the east of the Creek (Muskogee) and Seminole Nations, whose borders were defined in an 1833 treaty that the Supreme Court ruling upheld. 

In the coming decades, the two tribes would become two separate nations through a series of treaties. The Supreme Court ruling reaffirms the validity of these agreements with the United States government. 

“Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has a population of more than 223,000 citizens, making it the third largest federally recognized tribe in the United States. Located in the southeastern corner of the state, the tribe has jurisdiction over more than 10,000 square miles encompassing ten-and-a-half counties.

On its website, the tribe said, “The decision also strengthens the Choctaw Nation's position that it has and has always had a reservation.”

The case concerned jurisdiction, but not land ownership, Kevin Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and dean of the law school at the University of Iowa, told NPR.

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“[The decision] doesn't mean the tribe owns all the land within the reservation, just like the county doesn't own all the land within the county. In fact, it probably doesn't own very much of that land,” he told NPR.

The Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is the largest of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes in the United States, with a population of about 141,000 citizens. Located in the northeast corner of the state, the nation contains 6,963.21 square miles of land and water, which covers 14 counties. 

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement, “The Cherokee Nation is glad the U.S. Supreme Court has finally resolved this case and rendered a decision which recognizes that the reservation of the Creek Nation, and by extension the reservations of the Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation and Seminole Nation, were never diminished and that our respective governments were never dissolved.”


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Published on Jul 13, 2020