Muscogee (Creek) Principal Chief Says Legislation In The Wake Of McGirt v. Oklahoma Would Be Rushed

Aug 24, 2020

Last week, KOSU aired an interview with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter about the agreement in principle between the state and the tribes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the McGirt v. Oklahoma case, possible legislation and shared jurisdiction.

Today, we're publishing Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill's response to the same set of questions. Hill said, "good faith negotiations" are needed to move forward on any agreement with the state and said that any legisation won't "prevent appeals based on McGirt and many of the other things that make for good headlines."

KOSU is continuing to cover the developments in the wake of the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision. What questions do you have for us? Let us know by texting the word CREEK to 844-877-7719.

Allison Herrera: I spoke with you the day the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision came out and you said your office, leaders of the four tribes and other agencies had been working on a plan since the Murphy case. You said you were figuring out how you would work together on some of the issues we're seeing pop up as a result of the decision. Can you walk me through some of those discussions you had? And tell me, do you feel like the work you did on the back end back then has been pushed to the side because of all of the developments in recent weeks?

Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill: I can’t speak to the specifics of discussions that took place prior to my taking office six months ago, but looking at the work product of those efforts it is clear that they were focused on the wrong objectives. The proposal in question looks more like a contingency plan for the state that in the event they lost in Court would allow them to keep the old system in place and continue to ignore our sovereign jurisdiction over the lands in question. The Supreme Court decision was not merely a symbolic one that affirmed sovereignty in name only, it was a functional one and conversations about the future should start there and work within the framework of sovereignty, not seek to get around it.

We absolutely want many forms of jurisdictional agreements with other agencies on a sovereign to sovereign basis. This is a golden opportunity to build better systems for public safety and economic development that will benefit everyone across Eastern Oklahoma, not just Indians. For example, in areas with cross deputization agreements the combination of local police and Tribal police increases law enforcement capacity which could reduce some of the burdens on local police while putting more revenue into municipal budgets. The same is true with the already stressed and overloaded state court system. The addition of Tribal and Federal courts could help relieve some of that workload and its associated costs. The same points apply with economic development. All across the country, communities have thrived and prospered by working with the tribes to promote economic development and jobs.

There are many questions that need to be answered to build these systems and we are in the process of working through all of that now. But rushing out to find agreement on some sort of one size fits all legislation that requires us to forfeit the jurisdiction just affirmed by the Court in order to rebuild the old system is not in the best interest of the public.

HERRERA: Oklahoma Attorney General was quoted in an interview saying that some who were especially critical of the agreement in principle were "sovereignty hobbyists." What do you the Attorney General meant by that?

HILL: The Attorney General says that his use of the term “sovereignty hobbyists” was more “provocative” than intended, but he never says that it doesn’t reflect his true feelings. This is troubling because it represents a flawed perception of what sovereignty is and what it means. Sovereignty is not some sort of symbolic perk of identity politics derived from the government. Indians were forcibly put here in this area that eventually became surrounded by the state of Oklahoma with a promise that this land would be ours forever to live in peace as equals with our sovereign neighbors. Generations have fought and many have died to protect this right, so this is a little more than a hobby. It’s the foundations of our nation, our culture and our identity reaching back long before the State of Oklahoma existed.

That said, Tribal sovereignty doesn’t stop us from working together, it just directs how we should go about doing it. The concept of intergovernmental agreements is not new. Tribes all across the country have used them to build systems of governance even in urban areas with high non-Indian populations. Here in Oklahoma, we already had a number of agreements in place even before the Supreme Court decision. So, it’s clear that negotiation will work and can provide better solutions than legislation that would strip our sovereignty and jurisdiction. The state and others just have to be willing to come to the table and negotiate in good faith.

HERRERA: Tribal government and citizens I spoke with said that being able to carry out justice in their own (tribal) courts and through their own legal system is inherently what makes them sovereign nations. Do you agree with that? I know there will be some challenges in terms of staffing the courts and hiring more Lighthorsemen. But I think the Reservation Protection Committee is trying to deal with some of those issues, yes?

HILL: Of course, jurisdiction is essential to sovereignty and self-determination. Taking away authority would make sovereignty just a meaningless word. And forcibly taking away jurisdiction can hardly be called “sharing.” By that standard, any unjust taking could be justified. Tribal sovereignty is not at odds with public safety. No one wants, nor would we ever allow any sort of catch and release program to exist. That is why we have been moving swiftly to ramp up Muscogee (Creek) resources and negotiate agreements with various agencies to meet the immediate requirements. But the question is not just how can we protect public safety, it is how can we protect public safety better than what has ever been possible before? That is why we have formed the Mvskoke Reservation Protection Commission to identify long-term solutions. The commission is tasked with looking internally at Muscogee laws, operations and resources. But it is also charged with reaching out to entities, agencies and industries all across the state to understand ways we can work together to build a better future for everyone.

We are grateful for the Attorney General’s efforts in working with Tribal law enforcement to encourage local agencies to negotiate with us and other efforts aimed at addressing immediate concerns. But that isn’t enough. We are hopeful that someday soon, the Attorney General and others will be willing to come to the table and meet with me directly to start discussing the many options available to us to build durable solutions through sovereignty, not in spite of it.

HERRERA: There is a lot of talk about the need for legislation in the wake of McGirt. This is something that will have lasting effects. What's your opinion on this?

HILL: I think this goes back to the basic issue of focusing on using legislation to rebuild the old system that ignored Tribal jurisdiction. Legislation that was being discussed even before the Supreme Court rendered its decision seems to me to be the very definition of rushed. We believe that current law provides all the tools needed to move forward so legislation is not only premature, but unneeded and harmful.

The notion that legislation is some sort of cure-all is false. Legislation won’t prevent appeals based on McGirt and many of the other things that make for good headlines. But it can and would create serious new problems. In just one example, the legislation supported by the Attorney General would have had devastating consequences for Native American women by permanently codifying a federal law that has hampered their ability to protect themselves from violence and seek justice.

These issues will take time to navigate and this process needs time. So, legislation now would inherently be rushed and blind to its own potential negative consequences. And it’s not good for Indian Country. Legislation would undermine every other Tribal Nation in the country by setting the precedent that in the event of a future historic court decision overturning an unjust system, the appropriate response from Congress is to pass laws as quickly as possible to invalidate it.

HERRERA: What's the way forward in the wake of the McGirt decision?

HILL: Good faith negotiations. We are not interested in participating in politics that give the appearance of consultation and justify legislation. But I would invite others to stop focusing on ways to use legislation to forcibly rebuild the unjust systems of the past and instead work with us to find new ways of doing things that use sovereignty to bring unparalleled public safety and prosperity to Eastern Oklahoma. I have requested a series of regular meetings with the Governor for this purpose. We welcome the same with the Attorney General and the members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation and frankly anyone else who wants to have open and honest discussion about building a better future.

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