Law enforcement dispute continues between Muscogee Nation and Governor Stitt
By R.L. Thompson
The McGirt ruling by the United States Supreme Court on July 9, 2020, stating the Muscogee Creek Reservation was never disestablished by Congress. The ruling was later expanded to include the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole tribes, commonly known as the five civilized tribes. The McGirt ruling pertained to criminal matters dealing with Native Americans and whether Native Americans could be tried by the state of Oklahoma. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Muscogee Reservation was not disestablished by Congress and therefore, prevents the state of Oklahoma from bringing criminal charges against a Native American for committing a crime on tribal land. The ruling dealt with major crimes.
Since the McGirt ruling, other cases have been litigated that has impacted law enforcement. The most recent was the Hopper vs. Tulsa case where the 10th Circuit reaffirmed that states and municipalities do not have criminal jurisdiction over tribal citizens on tribal land even involving traffic citations.
Several cities and counties in eastern Oklahoma have cross-deputized with the Muscogee Creek Nation Light Horse. Okmulgee County, the city of Okmulgee, and the city of Henryetta have not cross-deputized with the Nation.
On Monday, December 18, the Light Horse arrested a non-native who allegedly had fentanyl and driving illegally near a school zone. When the Light Horse arrived at the Okmulgee County Jail with the accused person, there was a conflict over whether the Light Horse had jurisdiction to place a prisoner in the Okmulgee Jail.
The December 28 edition of Okemah News Leader printed the article by Tres Savage (NonDoc Media) entitled “Sad state of Affairs” that detailed the story and conflict between law enforcement in Okmulgee and the Muscogee Creek Light Horse. The Light Horse noted that while not cross-deputized with Okmulgee County officers, they were cross-deputized with the Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA). It was under this authority they were acting when making the arrest.
On Friday, January 5, GRDA rescinded their cross-deputization with the Muscogee Creek Nation and with the Cherokee Nation. The Governor has several appointees on the GRDA board. In response to GRDA’s action, Principal Chief Hill released the following statement on January 5.
“The suspension of this agreement is not the result of any problem with the cross deputization agreement. Instead, this is a dangerous political ploy driven by Governor Stitt’s desire to undermine tribal jurisdiction at the expense of the most vulnerable Oklahomans.
Our Attorney General met with the Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA) officials on December 22, 2023, where they expressed enthusiastic support for the benefits of working together under our cross deputization agreement. They even began planning training events to make others aware of how well it worked. Since that time, the GRDA has moved to suspend this agreement pending the outcome of Governor Stitt’s planned task force. Given the absence of any substantive issues related to the GRDA commission, we are left to conclude that the suspension of this agreement results from pressure from Governor Stitt and his campaign to undermine the sovereignty of tribes and deteriorate public safety.
It is beyond reprehensible for Stitt or any agency to play political games with the safety and well-being of Oklahoma citizens. We believe it is misguided to suspend any commission immediately. Violent criminals and those who harm others will not suspend their criminal activities, and there should be more police on the streets to address them, not less.
Public safety is our priority, and the MCN will continue to respond to all calls for assistance and actively protect the public as consistent with all laws.”
Following the events that transpired in Okmulgee on December 18, Governor Stitt signed an executive order on Friday, December 22 forming One Oklahoma Task Force to Confront the Continued Impact of McGirt. The purpose was to provide the Governor, Legislature, Tribal leaders, and congressional delegation with legislative and regulatory recommendations as we continue to feel the impacts of the McGirt decision. The executive order read:
“The primary function of government is to protect public safety, and the McGirt decision has created confusion and tension among those that work to serve that function,” said Governor Stitt. “By gathering stakeholders from every corner of our state, we can address the real jurisdictional challenges left by McGirt and usher in lasting change. The State of Oklahoma, Tribal governments, and our citizens deserve clarity.”
The One Oklahoma Task Force will develop and submit a report that contains:
Legislative and regulatory recommendations to address the effects of the McGirt decision;
Uniform cross-deputization and jail agreements; and
Any other recommendations relevant to the speedy resolution of the broken system created by the McGirt decision.
The creation of the Task Force comes days after a jurisdictional dispute between an Okmulgee County jail employee and a Muscogee Creek tribal police officer. Jurisdictional ambiguity in the wake of the McGirt decision continues to cripple the state’s ability to keep Oklahomans safe.
The One Oklahoma Task Force will be comprised of:
The Secretary of Public Safety;
The Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives or designee;
The President Pro Tempore of the Oklahoma Senate or designee;
The Attorney General or designee;
An appointee by the District Attorneys Council;
One member of a county jail trust appointed by the Secretary of Public Safety;
An appointee by the Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association;
An appointee by the Department of Public Safety;
An appointee by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation;
An appointee by the Council on Law Enforcement Training;
An appointee by the Oklahoma State Fraternal Order of Police;
One member representing Oklahoma’s Five Civilized Tribes; and
One member representing Oklahoma’s other thirty-three tribes.
The Muscogee Nation issued an official rejection statement on Monday, January 8 of participating in the Governor’s task force on tribal jurisdiction.
Chief Hill made the following statement:
“As a matter of principle, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation welcomes any opportunity for collaboration to improve the public safety for all Oklahomans.
Unfortunately, the Governor’s taskforce on McGirt is based on a false premise and seeks misguided political objectives through a structure intended to divide rather than unify. This task force cannot adequately serve the public good unless these flaws are corrected.
We cannot participate in any endeavor aimed at weakening tribal nations and, by extension, harming public safety.
At its core, the McGirt decision is a pro-public safety ruling. By restoring tribal jurisdiction that the State had illegally usurped for decades, the decision has meant more police, prosecutors, and courts to enforce the law and deliver justice to victims.
Adding more public safety resources through tribal jurisdiction did not create “uncertainty” or a patchwork solution.
The laws on how tribal jurisdiction can work collaboratively with Oklahoma’s other agencies are crystal clear. Unfortunately, rather than focus on how to incorporate tribal authority to benefit the public, the State has wasted far too much time and energy finding ways to evade, reject, or minimize the positive impact of tribal jurisdiction. This taskforce is just the latest example of that.”