Cherokee Nation to seek Supreme Court review of UKB trust land decision
United Keetoowah Band Chief Joe Bunch speaks during Dec. 5 a signing ceremony for land in trust with Jessie Durham, deputy regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ eastern Oklahoma office. Cherokee Nation officials say they will appeal a federal court decision that states the UKB can have trust land within the CN jurisdiction. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – The Cherokee Nation will seek a U.S. Supreme Court review of the recent circuit court decision that allows the United Keetoowah Band trust land within the CN’s borders.
“The UKB recently had 76 acres of land taken into trust by the United States after a decision at the 10th Circuit (Court of Appeals), which held that Congress intended to allow other tribes to take land into trust inside the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation,” Attorney General Sara Hill told Tribal Councilors on Dec. 16. “We believe that decision fails to uphold and respect the treaties that the Nation has signed with the United States. We feel like it misinterprets Congress’ intent in language it passed to protect the Cherokee Nation. We will be requesting that the Supreme Court review the decision of the 10th Circuit.”
For 15 years, the UKB sought approval for trust land, but was 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 CN boundaries.
But in September, the U.S. Court of Appeals 10th Circuit vacated a 2017 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. Following that decision, the CN filed a motion for rehearing then a stay in hopes of halting the trust land process. Both of the efforts were denied.
On Dec. 5, UKB leaders officially signed a deed to place 76 acres of land in trust. The CN’s intention to pursue Supreme Court intervention is “disappointing but not surprising,” UKB Chief Joe Bunch said.
“My own belief is that Congress intended the UKB to be a federally recognized tribe with all the rights that federal recognition grants to tribes, including land in trust, as stated in our constitution and corporate charter,” he said. “Over the years, UKB has had to prove who we are again and again. Yet, our history and traditions have prevailed. The federal government first called us the Western Cherokees, or Old Settlers, to distinguish us from the Eastern Cherokees. We were the first in Arkansas in 1817, and again when we moved to Indian Territory in 1828. Why is this so hard to understand? Our home is here and the land is our right.”
In 2013, then-CN Attorney General Todd Hembree argued that CN has always had “exclusive jurisdiction over” the 14 counties that make up its boundaries. He said the BIA’s belief that the UKB and CN are both predecessors of the CN “brought over here through the forced removal” was troubling because the UKB formed under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act.
The 10th Circuit’s Sept. 5 decision stated that the secretary of Interior “has authority to take the Subject Parcel into trust under section 3 of the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936. The BIA was therefore not required to consider whether the UKB meets the IRA’s definition of ‘Indian.’ Nor was the BIA required to obtain the Nation’s consent before taking the land into trust. We also hold that the BIA’s application of its regulations was not arbitrary and capricious. Accordingly, we reverse the district court and vacate the injunction preventing the Secretary from taking the Subject Parcel into trust.”
The UKB is one of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, along with the CN and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
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.