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'Blindsided' by Tulsa's call to overturn McGirt, commission asks Bynum to withdraw SCOTUS brief

hoskin indian affairs commission rally
Matt Trotter for KWGS
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. speaks at a rally before Native Americans and allies marched to an Indian affairs commission special meeting about the city's brief calling for the reversal of McGirt v. Oklahoma.

The Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission wants Mayor G.T. Bynum to withdraw a brief filed last week in support of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s attempt to have the U.S. Supreme Court overturn its ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma.

The July 2020 decision found Oklahoma had been illegally prosecuting crimes invoving Native Americans within the boundaries of the Muscogee Nation reservation for more than 100 years. Subsequent lower court decisions extended the ruling to other tribes.

Commissioners said Wednesday no one from the city consulted or even notified them before filing the brief. They approved sending a letter to Bynum expressing "profound disappointment" over the situation. That letter is to be forwarded to other city commissions on human rights and equity.

Indian affairs commission Chair Cheryl Cohenour also pushed back against some of the city's claims in its brief, like hundreds or even thousands of criminals are walking free because of barriers to their arrest and prosecution. Cohenhour said cross-deputization agreements between state, local and tribal law enforcement are working, as are tribes’ efforts to work with federal prosecutors and to ramp up their own justice systems.

"I think that what was in the brief was not necessarily the true facts, and I don’t want to mislead the Native community or the citizens of Tulsa to make them think that crimes are going unpunished just because of the McGirt decision. That is not the case at all," Cohenour said.

The brief, which the City of Owasso joined, also says many of the city’s Indian residents are effectively second-class citizens under McGirt because the U.S. attorneys who must prosecute crimes against them are declining to do so. Indian affairs commission Vice Chair Vanessa Adams Harris read into the record a statement from Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill, who was not present at the start of the meeting because of a prior commitment.

"The fiction in the City of Tulsa’s legal filing that the McGirt ruling is bad for Indians is insulting at best, patently false and racist at worst. Those that adhere to that storyline are on the wrong path," Adams Harris said.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. spoke at a rally for Natives and allies before attending the commission meeting. Hoskin said he’s discussed challenges posed by McGirt with Bynum but was still caught off guard by the city’s filing.

"I don’t understand why he decided to resolve those challenges by throwing in with the most anti-tribal governor in the history of this state. I have no idea why any leader in this state would throw in with Kevin Stitt when it comes to Indian affairs, because Kevin Stitt is a failure on Indian affairs," Hoskin said. "Gov. Stitt has diminished tribal relations in this state more than any governor in its history."

Cherokee Nation is filing a brief on Friday to counter the cities’ claims. Attorney General Sara Hill said nothing has changed from when McGirt was decided in July 2020.

"All of these issues that they’re talking about today were issues that were raised then, and the court did not consider that persuasive enough to cancel out the treaty obligations and the promises made by the United States to the tribes then," Hill said.

Bynum issued a statement after the meeting, saying he appreciated the commission providing a forum for the Native American community but doubling down on the claim criminals are not being prosecuted.

"I think the world of the tribal leaders we have in the Cherokee, Muscogee, and Osage Nations. They have been incredibly important collaborators with me during my time as mayor, and they will continue to be in the future," Bynum said in the statement. "Leaders can have principled disagreements and still work together for the common good, and my hope is that will be the case here."

City councilors who attended Wednesday's Indian affairs commission meeting said they were also not aware the city was filing the brief before it happened.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.