In what is being considered a landmark case for indigenous rights, the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed 3 million acres in eastern Oklahoma as Native American land. Though an 1866 treaty committed this land to five tribes, the state has ignored this pact for over a century.
The majority opinion for the ruling was written by Neil Gorsuch, a conservative justice appointed by Donald Trump. While he has been detrimental to some progressive causes, his continued commitment to textualism (i.e., interpreting the literal wording of laws, rather than the inferred intended meaning) appears to be a boon for indigenous rights. In many cases, the government has failed to adhere to the clear and unmistakable text of treaties. A strict textualist interpretation of these treaties will undoubtedly help return some of what is rightfully due to the tribes.
Practically, the ruling means that the state does not have jurisdiction over many crimes occurring on this land. It will likely mean the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has additional jurisdiction over tribal members living on the land.
Symbolically, it is a significant step in acknowledging the U.S. government’s widespread failure to abide by its own treaties with tribes and reason for hope that indigenous rights will be honored and protected in years to come.
What more can we do, not only to ensure tribes get what is rightfully due to them by law, but to ensure that native peoples around the country are included in our national reckoning on race and justice?
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