A ruling by the Supreme Court of the US has declared that half the state of Oklahoma is Native American land. The case was brought by Jimcy McGirt, who in 1997 was convicted for raping a girl, and was ruled 5-4 by the justices.
The decision affects Cherokee Nation, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Seminole Nation, Chickasaw Nation, and Choctaw Nation. This also means that the state’s second-largest city, Tulsa, will be part of a reservation. The area affected is over three million acres and home to 1.8 million people, of whom approximately 270,000 are Native American.
The opinion was written by Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, in which he referred to the Trail of Tears, when many Native Americans were forced to relocate to Oklahoma in the 19th century. At the time the US government said that the land would belong to the tribes permanently. Justice Gorsuch said:
“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law.
“Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
The ruling states that the Native Americans accused of crimes in the area will only be able to be prosecuted by federal prosecutors. This means that Mr McGirt’s prison sentence will be overturned, however, he may be tried in federal court following the ruling. In 1997 he was convicted for the rape of a four-year-old girl in Wagoner County, he is now 71. Ian Heath Gershengorn, Mr McGirt’s lawyer, said: “The Supreme Court reaffirmed today that when the United States makes promises, the courts will keep those promises.”
The five tribes affected offered a joint statement on the ruling, saying: “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.”