Supreme Court won’t hear UKB trust land case
TAHLEQUAH – The United Keetoowah Band’s 2019 legal win for land in trust remains intact following the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to consider a Cherokee Nation plea for intervention.
“Speaking as a tribal member, this is a monumental day for the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma,” UKB Chief Joe Bunch said in a prepared statement. “We had our highest courts in the land rule that we have the right to land in trust. Keetoowahs can now rest assured that with this ruling, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma cannot fight us or hamper our efforts for growth any longer.”
For 15 years, the UKB sought approval for land in trust within the CN’s jurisdiction. Those efforts were met with delays and eventual legal opposition by the CN, which asserted the UKB was not a “successor in interest” to its former reservation or treaty territory. The CN also argued that its consent was required for taking land into trust within Nation boundaries.
In September, the U.S. Court of Appeals 10th Circuit vacated an injunction that prevented the UKB’s land from being placed in trust in the case of United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians v. the Cherokee Nation. The CN subsequently filed a petition for rehearing, which was denied, as was a motion to temporarily stop the judgment.
Unsatisfied with the lower court’s rulings, in January the CN petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court via a writ of certiorari to hear the case. The certiorari petition was “based on the United States’ unprecedented assertion of unilateral authority to take land into trust for one tribe within the boundaries of another tribe’s treaty-protected territory,” a letter from CN Attorney General Sara Hill stated.
An order released by the Supreme Court on June 22 listed the certiorari as “denied.”
“Today the UKB has victory and is not suffering agony at the hands of CNO,” UKB Tribal Councilor Jeannie Tidwell wrote in a Facebook post. “The UKB has been blessed. The CNO’s petition to the Supreme Court to overturn our 76 acre land in trust decision was denied. That means the case is over. Our 76 acres in trust, is for good.”
As of publication, CN officials had not responded to the decision.
UKB leaders officially signed a deed to place the land in trust on Dec. 5.
“The handcuffs that were upon us are removed,” Bunch said at the time. “Other generations of the Keetoowah people will have this land in trust.”
Ernestine Berry, director of the tribe’s cultural museum, said the UKB had been waiting decades for trust land.
“We first submitted this request for land in trust when Dallas Proctor was chief,” she said. “So this time it’s been 17 years, but 80 years ago, John Hitcher, who was our chief at that time, he submitted a request for land. So we’ve been 80 years in acquiring this land.”
The 76-acre site in Tahlequah, purchased by the UKB in 2000, is home to the tribe’s museum, community center, law enforcement headquarters, a wellness center and other buildings and offices. The 76 acres do not include any land for gaming facilities and were not approved as land in trust for gaming purposes.
“It’s a glorious day that the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma was denied their final appeal,” UKB Assistant Chief Jamie Thompson said June 22. “They have nowhere else to go to try and deny the UKB its land in trust. This case was settled and we signed the deed to the land last December. Now we’re officially equal to any other federally recognized tribe and we’re looking forward to a future where we can exercise our rights like every other federally recognized tribe that has land in trust.”