Cherokee Nation leaders spar over McGirt ruling response
TAHLEQUAH – In a lengthy, sometimes heated Rules Committee meeting on July 20, Cherokee leaders explored the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, its potential impact and, more specifically, the Cherokee Nation’s involvement in a multi-tribe agreement with the state regarding criminal and civil jurisdiction issues.
Tribal Councilor Wes Nofire, who noted the Council was not offered a say regarding the agreement, questioned the CN’s inclusion in the non-binding accord. Nofire said he wanted to “clarify the air” as to where Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “got the power to agree on behalf of the Cherokee Nation.”
“Let’s be clear,” Hoskin told Nofire. “You’re not simply asking the question. You’re making an implicit indictment. I’ve not violated the Constitution. You’re misreading the Constitution.”
Attorney General Sara Hill said it was her opinion that Hoskin had authority to join the other tribes.
“This is an agreement in principal that we have entered into to explain our framework,” she said. “There is nothing here that the Tribal Council needs to approve, and everything that’s been done is well within the executive authority of the principal chief.”
The tribes’ agreement-in-principle with the state was a response to the 5-4 ruling handed down July 9 by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen Jimcy McGirt, who claimed state courts had no authority to try him for a crime committed on MCN land. McGirt was serving a life sentence in Oklahoma for molesting a child before the Supreme Court’s decision overturned the state conviction.
The court’s determination that MCN’s historical reservation remained intact through Oklahoma statehood has potential to impact the CN and other tribes. Initially, all of the Five Tribes – the CN, MCN, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations – backed the agreement-in-principal to work with the state to craft legislation that will “best serve our shared interests” related to criminal and civil jurisdiction in the wake of the ruling. However, the Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole nations have since indicated they are no longer involved.
“I was happy when it came out and said all the Five Tribes are in agreement,” Tribal Councilor Harley Buzzard said. “I thought this is really going to work out. Then now we hear that the two tribes are not. So there’s some problems there. I think it’s really, really important that we all stick together.”
The remaining three tribes, in a different statement, said that no tribal leaders “support eroding our sovereignty or turning back the recognition of our reservation achieved through McGirt.”
“We feel that the leaders of each tribe understand that we must be engaged with the state Attorney General and members of Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation if we are to have a meaningful voice in any legislative process that moves forward as a result of McGirt,” a news release from the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes states. “Above all, each leader has a responsibility to the citizens we represent to protect our sovereignty.”
During the Rules Committee meeting, Hoskin told the Council he wanted to “dispose any notion that I have given away our sovereignty.”
“It’s a statement that ought to offend any tribal leader, and it offends me,” he said. “But I’m not going to spend another minute being offended. I’m going to spend the rest of this term in office making sure I continue to protect the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation. I’ll do it before the Congress of the United States; I’ve done it before the Congress of the United States. I’ll do it in the courts; I’ve done it in the courts. I’ll do it in the public. I will protect this tribe. I take it serious.”
Nofire made a motion to amend the agenda to further discuss the tribes’ agreement and hear from Council attorney Tim Brown, who also questioned the tribe’s involvement in the agreement. Nofire’s motion failed to garner the required two-thirds vote.
Tribal leaders did hear from Stacy Leeds, a former CN Supreme Court justice and the first Native woman to serve as a law school dean in the United States. Leeds said she spoke earlier with Hoskin and agreed to lend her expertise to ensure “we all really understand how big of a deal that this is.”
“I’m here because I believed [Hoskin] exercised exceptional leadership in that meeting with me, and that he truly is going to listen to a bunch of different viewpoints,” Leeds said.
Of the agreement-in-principal, she noted that “framework” would have been a better term. “I believe these are parameters as a starting point,” said Leeds, who worked on the tribe’s McGirt amicus brief. “I truly believe there has not been an agreement reached, that these are talking points to start us off with.”
Nofire said he appreciated Leeds’ interest, but pointed out that she was representing only “one branch of the government, not just independently.” In response, Leeds said she was there in her “individual capacity as a Cherokee citizen.”
“I would be here to help and I will be here to be a public voice,” she said. “But I am not here on behalf of the chief. I am here in solidarity with the promise that the chief will slow down, listen to everybody and hear everybody out.”
Hoskin later released a statement that said “I am wiser” following the nearly two-hour meeting while also acknowledging peaceful demonstrators outside the Tribal Complex that day along with comments on social media.
“I have listened to all of this,” he wrote. “The Council of the Cherokee Nation is also listening and is engaged on this subject. I remain steadfastly determined to protect Cherokee sovereignty and do so with the overwhelming confidence of members of the Council of the Cherokee Nation.”