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The Supreme Court’s ‘landmark decision’ on tribal sovereignty

On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed Native American rights to millions of acres of land in eastern Oklahoma. The 5-4 opinion granted jurisdictional control to the Muscogee Nation and extends to four neighboring tribal nations, which together make up more than half the state. Allison Herrera, a reporter for KOSU public radio, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the “landmark decision.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yesterday, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Native American rights to millions of acres of land in Eastern Oklahoma.

    The 5-4 opinion granted jurisdictional control to the Muscogee Nation. That decision extends to four neighboring tribal nations, which, together, make up more than half of the state.

    Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion, stating that — quote — "Today, we are asked whether the land that these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word."

    Here to talk about the significance of this decision is Allison Herrera. She's a reporter for KOSU public radio near Oklahoma City.

    Allison Herrera, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    And I have to say, I have a special interest in this case, as someone who was born in Tulsa.

    But let's talk about the justices' ruling. I'm seeing opinions today that this is going to affect the tribal rights of these Native Americans in many more ways than beyond just the narrow ruling that this originally was, which was a criminal case against one man.

    How is it being interpreted there?

  • Allison Herrera:

    Hi, Judy.

    I just want to state what this ruling does is affirm what tribal citizens have known and upheld the law, the nation's highest law, is — in that these treaties must be honored and that the nation, that the Muscogee Creek Nation's reservation was never dissolved.

    So, in terms of what it's going to change, it's not really going to change anything. It already upholds what citizens of Oklahoma and citizens of the five tribes have already known.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So what about — just at the very basic level, what about in terms of criminal law, the fact that the man who had been convicted of child abuse, molesting a child — he had been tried in state court.

    Are case — is his case, are other cases now going to have to go back and be tried in federal courts?

  • Allison Herrera:

    It's my understanding that, in terms of post-conviction relief, there are rules to follow and a timeline that also must be followed.

    This ruling doesn't change any of those procedural requirements. This notion that hundreds of people being released from prison is ridiculous. There's really no reporting or no basis, in that what it's going to do is, it basically just reaffirms the Major Crimes Act, which is that, when an Indian person commits a felony crime on reservation or Indian land, that person is subject to federal law, federal court, not state court.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so the interpretation that we're seeing in some quarters, especially here in the press, we're reading on the East Coast, in The New York Times and The Washington Post, that this is a historic, landmark decision, you're saying it's really — the effect of it is going to be much more narrow than that.

  • Allison Herrera:

    I'm not disagreeing that it's not a landmark decision. It is a landmark decision. It's a historic decision in terms that it affirms tribal sovereignty. It upholds the law. It upholds the law that indigenous people living in Oklahoma and elsewhere around the nation have already known.

    But in terms of affecting everyday life of citizens in Oklahoma, Native and non, a lot — the police departments, tribal police and state police, they already work together. Some of those officers are cross-deputized.

    So, this thing that it's going to upend criminal proceedings, that's just not the case. In fact, yesterday, Oklahoma's attorney general, Mike Hunter, and the five tribes released a statement saying that they were already working on an agreement after the Murphy — the Murphy case that was from last — from the Supreme Court's last session.

    They were already starting to work on an agreement together to hammer out some of these jurisdictional and criminal prosecution issues that might arise.

    And I think the feeling both from the tribes and from the state is that they already have a really good working relationship. And they're just going to keep continuing what they're doing.

    So, again, this is just upholding the law that was already there and affirming tribal sovereignty.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it certainly got our attention.

    Allison Herrera, WOSU (sic), thank you very much.

  • Allison Herrera:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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