Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Small: Tribes go AWOL on McGirt response

Tribes go AWOL on McGirt response
By Jonathan Small

Tribal-government officials say they can handle the new responsibilities placed on them as the result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which effectively declared most of eastern Oklahoma to be the reservation land of the Muscogee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations.

Yet, when given the opportunity to publicly discuss how they will preserve public safety on reservation land at a recent Tulsa forum, the leaders of all five tribes went AWOL. They didn’t respond to invitations. They didn’t show up.

That (in)action sent a loud message about the seriousness of tribal leaders and provides no comfort to the 1.8 million Oklahomans living in eastern Oklahoma.

Because of McGirt, state officials cannot arrest or prosecute criminals with any degree of tribal heritage in eastern Oklahoma, while tribal courts have little authority over non-Indians. That leaves the federal government to prosecute most crimes involving a tribal-member victim or perpetrator. Unfortunately, the federal government isn’t doing so.

Although federal law-enforcement officials are investigating major crimes (murder, rape, etc.), lower-level crimes such as theft are not being prosecuted. Rogers County District Attorney Matt Ballard said federal officials are declining to prosecute 95 percent of crimes reported to them. Seminole County District Attorney Paul Smith similarly said many crimes in eastern Oklahoma now “go unaddressed.”

The victims are citizens of all backgrounds—including tribal citizens. Who is going to protect those Oklahomans?

In convening and attending the forum, Gov. Kevin Stitt and district attorneys from areas affected by McGirt showed they are prepared to lead. Stitt also showed leadership in challenging the Biden administration’s effort to federalize mining regulation in eastern Oklahoma because of McGirt.

That’s in sharp contrast to tribal officials. While tribal leaders were invited to the Tulsa forum, the governor’s office received no response, despite numerous follow-up efforts.

Instead, Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill issued a statement decrying the forum as a “one-sided” political campaign that is “intended only to spread misinformation.” What information presented at the forum does the Muscogee Nation dispute? Hill didn’t say.

There has been an abundance of political rhetoric from tribal leaders like Hill, but an almost complete absence of meaningful conversation on how they will preserve public safety when both state and tribal governments have little ability to prosecute crimes on reservation land and the federal government isn’t prosecuting most crimes.

Oklahomans of all backgrounds deserve answers.

Some tribal officials describe McGirt as an opportunity. But the reality is that economic opportunity is going to be very limited and dwindle quickly in eastern Oklahoma if basic public safety cannot be maintained.

There is no path forward for Oklahoma that does not involve consistent enforcement of the law for all Oklahomans of all backgrounds. Those who duck this discussion forfeit their right to call themselves leaders.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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