On July 9, the Supreme Court decided that, for legal jurisdiction purposes, the eastern half of Oklahoma is part of the Muscogee (Creek) reservation. This section includes the state capital.
The decision means that if a Native American is involved in a major crime within the reservation boundaries, the case will be tried in federal court rather than in a state court. It’s a technical distinction that has implications for past cases, and will change the face of future cases. It’s a thought that takes some getting used to: the “Indians” have legal dominion over downtown Tulsa? What an odd notion!
Why was this ruling by SCOTUS not national front-page news? Because the effects entail only legal prosecutions. It’s not as if the Muscogee now have total jurisdiction over the land in question. The sovereignty is mostly symbolic, and dates to treaties from the late 1800s.
What if it wasn’t only symbolic? What if the Muscogee, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Shawnee, and over 30 other tribes in Oklahoma were actually granted sovereignty over the land they occupied for generations? What would that look like? Would there still be oil rigs dominating swathes of the landscape? If those First Peoples still controlled their historic ranges, would there be fracking, pollution, thousands of endangered species, and Walmarts every two miles?
We saw what happened at Standing Rock in 2016, when the Dakota and Lakota Sioux tribes attempted to protest the invasion of their land for the Dakota Access Pipeline. The tribes drew support from around the world, and remained encamped for a year, despite being attacked by police in riot gear, despite being assaulted with water cannons in the freezing cold. President Obama finally, belatedly, intervened on their behalf, but in the meantime, archaeologically important sites were destroyed and sacred ground was violated. Then the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue tore up Obama’s halt to the pipeline four days after he entered the Oval Office, and the pipeline was completed. However, as of March 25 of this year, a federal judge ordered that the pipeline cease operations and be drained, pending submission by the Army Corps of Engineers of a thorough environmental impact statement. The tribes have prevailed, for now, but it’s obvious that the fossil fuel industry and its many powerful supporters care nothing for Native American land, traditions, or rights. The fact that the tribes continue to fight so hard for what should be theirs is proof of their commitment to their history and to the land.
The Supreme Court ruling in Oklahoma and the verdict to suspend DAPL operations are rare victories for Native Americans. They come after centuries of seizure of their territory, slaughter of their game animals, and total disdain for their rights and livelihoods. Dozens of broken treaties mark the conquest of the United States, from Andrew Jackson’s reneging on agreements with the Seminole to the disregard for the treaty in 1868 that guaranteed the Sioux most of South Dakota. What the settlers and the U.S. government did, aside from damage wreaked on Native American land and massacres of individuals, was to shove away and ignore an invaluable resource: the First Peoples’ wisdom and knowledge. The greed for land and the drive to the Pacific bulldozed the tribes’ ethic of treading lightly in their territories and respecting the Earth.
The rapaciousness continues apace today. Given the history of the West, the DAPL’s depredations are all the more egregious, and the Sioux’s determination to preserve at least some of their sacred ground and their ecosystems is all the more admirable. It’s why the recognition of their sovereignty in Oklahoma is a significant moral victory. Perhaps the day will come when Americans actually realize what was sacrificed when we spread across the continent and usurped the places of the people who had the first claim to our country.