The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that about half of the land in Oklahoma is within a Native American reservation, a decision that will have major consequences for both past and future criminal and civil cases.
The court’s decision hinged on the question of whether the Creek reservation continued to exist after Oklahoma became a state.
“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,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.
The decision was 5-4, with Justices Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer in the majority, while Justices John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.
The ruling will have significant legal implications for eastern Oklahoma. Much of Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city, is located on Muscogee (Creek) land. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation cheered the court’s decision.
“The Supreme Court today kept the United States’ sacred promise to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation,” the tribe said in a statement. “Today’s decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our established sovereignty and territorial boundaries.”
In a dissenting opinion, Roberts, the chief justice, wrote that the decision “will undermine numerous convictions obtained by the State, as well as the State’s ability to prosecute serious crimes committed in the future,” and “may destabilize the governance of vast swathes of Oklahoma.”
Kevin Washburn is dean of the law school at the University of Iowa, where he teaches a course on federal Indian law — “It’s basically 15 weeks of how the law in the United States has failed my people,” he said.
He served as assistant secretary of Indian affairs from 2012 to 2016, and he’s a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. He called the court’s ruling “a great decision.”
“For Indian people, their land is really important, and treaties are really important. They’re sacred. And this reaffirms the sacredness of those promises and those treaties.”
“Now and then there’s a great case that helps you keep the faith about the rule of law,” he said. “And this is one of those.”