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Cherokee leaders discuss the state of tribal sovereignty following major Supreme Court decisions

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Cherokee Nation
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Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill during the "ᏣᎳᎩ: Wherever We Are, Aftermath of McGirt Edition" virtual program on Saturday, July 30, 2022.

Cherokee Nation officials discussed the ramifications of several recent Supreme Court decisions during a virtual event Saturday, holding firm to the nation's rights even after an "erosion" of sovereignty from the high court and "anti-Indian" attacks by Oklahoma state leaders.

Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. introduced the "ᏣᎳᎩ: Wherever We Are, Aftermath of McGirt Edition" program by celebrating 2020's court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, seen across Indian Country as a major victory for sovereignty, while also lamenting the court's more recent ruling in June's Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta opinion, which rolled back some of 2020's gains.

"The Supreme Court ignored its own precedent, undermined our sovereignty, and seems to have been influenced by the same anti-Indian critics who, for two years, have claimed that tribal sovereignty is a dangerous problem to be solved," Hoskin said.

"Contrary to what our anti-Indian critics claim, McGirt has not resulted in chaos," Hoskin said, alluding to the words of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Cherokee citizen who has made anti-sovereignty rhetoric a staple of speeches and statements since the 2020 decision.

"Some of these critics have the audacity, after centuries of broken promises to Indian tribes, to say that McGirt is a threat to Oklahoma," Hoskin said.

"Cherokee sovereignty is not a threat. Cherokee sovereignty is about respect for the Cherokee people, respect for our ancestors," Hoskin said.

Cherokee Nation Marshal Service Director Shannon Buhl said tribal law enforcement had stepped up to meet the post-McGirt moment, adding dozens of personnel and more frequently utilizing cross-deputization agreements with local, state and federal agencies.

"McGirt fundamentally changed the way we do business," Buhl said. "Before those Supreme Court cases, we had small pockets of Indian land that we were the primary responsible party to. Post-McGirt, it's the entire reservation," which spans 14 Oklahoma counties over nearly 7,000 square miles and includes all or part of cities like Tulsa, Muskogee, Pryor, and the national capital of Tahlequah.

"With that, when I first started at the Marshal Service 21 years ago, I was the ninth marshal, and we're just over 50 now and going north of that," Buhl said. "It hasn't changed the day-to-day job that we do. We still do policing. We still do major crimes investigations. But it's the area that we cover, the population that we cover, has increased."

Kaw Nation Supreme Court Justice, Choctaw citizen and former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma Trent Shores said cooperation and respectful communication between all parties will be key to ensuring public safety and support for crime victims on Oklahoma's reservation land.

"Here in northeastern Oklahoma, what I learned when I was the chief federal law enforcement officer is that if we're not talking to each other until the day that we experience a problem, we're going to have issues," Shores said.

"I hope that our state counterparts — our district attorneys, our attorney general — will put aside the rhetoric and get to the substance of making good policy and collaborative working relationships," Shores said.

Cherokee Nation Tribal Council Speaker Mike Shambaugh, a 34-year law enforcement officer prior to being elected to office, said Oklahoma's posturing since McGirt had been harmful.

"Our own governor has continuously attacked the McGirt ruling, which, in essence, is an attack on our tribe's sovereignty," Shambaugh said.

"It has been said that McGirt was dangerous to the state of Oklahoma," Shambaugh said. "The danger from McGirt came from a governor who wasn't ever willing to sit down with tribal leaders and ask the simple question, 'What can we do together to make our state safer for all citizens?'"

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill said the Castro-Huerta decision will have ramifications throughout Indian Country, with jurisdictional rules changing overnight.

"The decision of the court was pretty clear that they intended this would apply to Indian Country wherever it may be in the United States," Hill said. "So if you live on a reservation in Arizona, you've seen criminal jurisdiction rules change in your state for the first time in, you know, generations."

"And not every state and not every reservation has the same relationships that we have the benefit of having in the Cherokee Nation — they may not have good cross-deputization agreements or good relationships with their local counties," Hill said.

"I get a lot of phone calls and talk to a lot of different people in Indian Country — this is the hot topic," Hill said. "This is what everyone who's involved in justice systems in Indian Country, this is what everyone's talking about."

Cherokee Nation Deputy Chief Bryan Warner said the tribe had spent over $30 million this fiscal year on expanding its criminal justice system.

"Regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Castro-Huerta, we will not back off from our obligation to protect all Oklahomans within our 7,000-square mile Cherokee Nation reservation," Warner said. "We will continue to both defend our rights and meet our responsibilities to our government."

"Most Oklahomans know that cooperation and respect for tribal nations is in the best interest of all of us," Warner said. "Our people remain our greatest strength. Our ancestors endured way worse and built and rebuilt a great Cherokee Nation. We will continue to honor their legacy."

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.