Half of Oklahoma Belongs to Native Tribe, Supreme Court Rules

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the land carved out for Native Americans in modern-day Oklahoma during the 19th century was never officially broken apart by Congress, and thus remains a reservation that belongs to the tribes in the area.

The 5-4 decision handed down in McGirt v. Oklahoma means nearly half of Oklahoma belongs to the Muscogee Creek Nation. The opinion was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who joined the Supreme Court in 2017 after he was nominated President Donald Trump. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the majority, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the dissenting opinion.

In his majority opinion, Gorsuch pointed to the "sadly familiar pattern" that he said the U.S. has followed over the years in retracting promises made to Native tribes.

"Yes, promises were made, but the price of keeping them has become too great, so now we should just cast a blind eye. We reject that thinking," Gorsuch wrote. "If Congress wishes to withdraw its promises, it must say so."

U.S. Supreme Court
A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 30, 2020 in Washington, D.C. On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Muscogee Creek Nation in McGirt v. Oklahoma. Stefani Reynolds/Getty

The case brought to the Supreme Court involved Muscogee Creek Nation member Jimcy McGirt, a Seminole who was convicted in 1997 of sex crimes involving a child. McGirt's appeal argued that the state court in Oklahoma could not convict him because it did not have jurisdiction to prosecute any alleged crimes on reservation land. The case thus transformed into a question about the reservation's existence and the U.S. government's ability to prosecute crimes in the area.

According to the court's ruling, the fact that Congress did not officially disassemble the reservation at any time after the land was allotted in 1866 meant it still legally belonged to the Muscogee Creek Nation. "Once a federal reservation is established, only Congress can diminish or disestablish it. Doing so requires a clear expression of congressional intent," the decision read.

"Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word," Gorsuch's opinion said.

The court said Oklahoma's argument in the case "resorts to the State's long historical practice of prosecuting Indians in state court for serious crimes on the contested lands, various statements made during the allotment era, and the speedy and persistent movement of white settlers into the area" but failed to convince the Supreme Court that the reservation boundaries had ever been nullified.

During oral arguments for the case earlier this year, Oklahoma Solicitor General Mithun Mansinghani said the consequences of ruling against the state could result in a crush of overturned or appealed convictions. The Supreme Court said it understood the "potential for cost and conflict" that might result from its decision but expressed confidence in the state's ability to work with Native officials to find a path forward.

In a public statement, Oklahoma and the five tribes represented by the Muscogee Creek Nation said they were determined to work together in the wake of the decision.

"The Nations and the State are committed to ensuring that Jimcy McGirt, Patrick Murphy, and all other offenders face justice for the crimes for which they are accused," the shared statement said. "We have a shared commitment to maintaining public safety and long-term economic prosperity for the Nations and Oklahoma.

"The Nations and the State are committed to implementing a framework of shared jurisdiction that will preserve sovereign interests and rights to self-government while affirming jurisdictional understandings, procedures, laws, and regulations that support public safety, our economy, and private property rights. We will continue our work, confident that we can accomplish more together than any of us could alone."

In a statement shared with Newsweek, Governor Kevin Stitt said his legal team had closely followed the case's progress and was in the process of looking into Thursday's decision. "[The legal team] will advise our team on the case's impact and what action, if any, is needed from our office," Stitt said.

Gorsuch, who has ruled in favor of Native tribes in the past, began his opinion with a reminder of the promises the U.S. government has made to Native Americans over the years, many of which have been broken.

"On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise," Gorsuch's opinion began, adding later, "While there can be no question that Congress established a reservation for the Creek Nation, it's equally clear that Congress has since broken more than a few of its promises to the Tribe."

Newsweek reached out to the Muscogee Creek Nation for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.

This story has been updated with additional information, background and a statement from Governor Kevin Stitt.