Landmark Supreme Court Ruling Affirms Native American Rights in Oklahoma

The ruling comes at an extraordinary times for Native Americans.

They are being ravaged by the coronavirus both in the soaring numbers of cases and deaths and the economic distress caused by closed casinos. But at the same moment, the nationwide movement to confront systemic racism has infused new energy and attention to generations-long fights by tribal nations and Indigenous activists over land, treaty rights and discrimination.

In the past few weeks, tribal activists garnered international attention after they blocked the roads outside Mount Rushmore to condemn President Trump’s visit to what they called stolen lands. They won a fight to shut down an oil pipeline that crossed sacred ground in North Dakota. In the face of growing pressure from corporate sponsors, the Washington Redskins of the N.F.L. recently promised to re-evaluate their team name, which activists have denounced for years as racist.

On social media, people celebrated Thursday’s decision with the declaration Native Lives Matter.

“This brings these issues into public consciousness a little bit more,” said John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, a nonprofit organization that has spent five decades fighting for issues like tribal sovereignty and recognition. “That’s one of the biggest problems we have, is that most people don’t know very much about us.”

The court’s decision means that Indigenous people who commit crimes on the eastern Oklahoma reservation, which includes much of Tulsa, cannot be prosecuted by state or local law enforcement, and must instead face justice in tribal or federal courts.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. warned in a dissenting opinion that the court’s decision would wreak havoc and confusion on Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.

“The state’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hobbled and decades of past convictions could well be thrown out,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “On top of that, the court has profoundly destabilized the governance of eastern Oklahoma.”

Earlier, the Justice Department raised concerns about how federal prosecutors would cope with a new onslaught of cases they would be suddenly responsible for investigating. And lawyers were parsing whether the decision might affect taxes, adoption or environmental regulations on the reservation lands.

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