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Fact-checking Oklahoma Governor's claim that Indigenous, non-Indigenous drivers have different speed limits

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt
Senate Press Photographer
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt

KOSU reviewed statements made by Gov. Kevin Stitt about alleged separate speed limits for Indigenous drivers in Eastern Oklahoma.

Earlier this week, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt tweeted out a video.

The video made a number of claims and pointed people toward a new state website containing information about what he says are the consequences of the McGirt v. Oklahoma and Hooper v. City of Tulsa that caused chaos for law enforcement. KOSU spoke to multiple tribal leaders who say they share the same goals the state has: follow the rule of law.

Below are some of the statements Stitt made and fact checks of his claims.

“The law no longer applies uniformly within tribal boundaries.”

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, American Indians and Alaska Natives are generally subject to federal, state and local laws as U.S. citizens. However, on federal Indian reservations, just federal and tribal laws apply to tribal members. The Assimilative Crimes Act is a federal law that makes any violation of state criminal law a federal offense on reservations. The McGirt v. Oklahoma and Hooper v. City of Tulsa decisions both questioned if the crimes were prosecuted in the correct court, the cases were not built on whether the defendants were guilty.

“Federal appeals court says cities with police departments on tribal lands cannot write tickets to tribal citizens and keep all the money collected for themselves.”

The 10th circuit court's decision last month reversed a lower court's decision in Tulsa that said the City of Tulsa had municipal jurisdiction over all people living in the city – including Native people on the reservation. The district court in Tulsa denied Justin Hooper's application for post-conviction relief. Hooper is a Choctaw citizen and was ticketed for speeding within the Muscogee Nation reservation. The city the Curtis Act, a pre-statehood law that gave them authority over native people in their boundaries. The 10th circuit wrote that part of the law no longer applies because once Oklahoma became a state, the city of Tulsa reorganized under Oklahoma law.

In their brief to the 10th circuit, Tulsa claimed there would be an unworkable system, "where municipal laws would apply only to some inhabitants, but not others.” However, the 10th circuit points out in their decision that the Muscogee Nation counters, "“[t]he Nation presently exercises highly effective criminal law enforcement throughout its Reservation—including in traffic matters—in close cooperation with other governments,” and “[r]eversing the district court’s decision will allow that cooperative enforcement to continue to flourish.”

The issue before the 10th circuit dealt with an issue of jurisdiction, not whether Native people could elude either the city of Tulsa police or Lighthorse police, both of which operate within city of Tulsa limits.

Since the McGirt decision, Hooper said the City of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma lack jurisdiction to convict Native people within Indian Country. Tulsa's boundaries lie within both Cherokee, Muscogee and Osage lands.

“Some believe your heritage should also determine the speeds you drive on Oklahoma roads.”

It’s unclear who exactly “some,” are. Who are the people that think that heritage should determine which laws should be followed and others disregarded?

The City of Verdigris recently signed an agreement with the Cherokee Nation that will allow them to keep the revenue from traffic tickets given to Native Americans on the reservation. This is the 24th agreement that the Cherokee Nation has signed with municipalities to let them keep a portion of the revenue from traffic tickets given to Native people on the reservation.

Verdigris Chief of Police Jack Shackelford says it's not too big of a change for his officers.

"What it's going to do for us is it's going to streamline the process," Shackleford said. "Instead of having to send everybody over to Tahlequah to the Cherokee tribal courts, we can handle their cases here unless they want to contest it, then it goes to tribal court."

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., said the agreement his tribal nation has with Verdigris is helpful. But, the nation also has its commitment to ensuring public safety.

“Irrespective of whether we have an agreement of any sort in place in any particular community within our reservation, it is important to understand that Cherokee Nation has a comprehensive criminal code substantially similar to the State of Oklahoma’s code,” Chief Hoskin said during the press conference

“This means that wild and irresponsible claims that tribal citizens are not subject to traffic laws are simply false.”

Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Chief Gary Batton panned Stitt’s video and said his tribal nation is working hard to enforce laws.

“Once again, Gov. Stitt is misrepresenting the facts. The Hooper decision does not exempt anyone from the law, it merely clarifies jurisdiction issues involving Native Americans on reservations established by Congress,” Batton said in a written statement. “Since 2020, the Choctaw Nation has filed more than 3,500 cases in our courts, hired 150 new workers in our legal system, added 47 new police officers and investigators and established a public defender’s office.

“We are committed to enforcing the law and protecting our communities.”

Is there a separate speed limit for an Indigenous driver on a reservation?

Native drivers will be pulled over for driving over the speed limit – the same speed limit as anyone else.

Verdigris Police Lt. Lance Jensen laid out how traffic tickets are given to tribal citizens.

"The first thing I do is determine whether or not they're a tribal citizen, because that will dictate which jurisdiction that offense occurred in," Jensen said.

It’s actually pretty simple.

"If a citation is issued, it will be issued into the jurisdiction that it needs to be issued in," he said.

Cross-deputizations between tribal police and city police gives both the power to make an arrest or to write a ticket.

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
Peggy Dodd was an intern at KOSU during the summer of 2023.
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