Throughout history, Native Americans were pushed off their territories by white settlers, and later the U.S. government, onto smaller and smaller patches of land. But in a ruling expected later this year, the Supreme Court could decide to hand back a big chunk of Oklahoma to American Indian tribes.
The justices have already heard arguments in the case of Patrick Murphy, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, who is fighting his conviction by an Oklahoma jury in a 1999 murder of another tribal member. Murphy’s lawyers have made a bold argument: He should never have been tried in a state court in the first place.
They argue that the murder took place on land in eastern Oklahoma that rightfully still belongs to the Muscogee Nation. By law, any major crimes between Native Americans on Indian reservations can be prosecuted only in tribal or federal courts, not state ones. Lawyers for the state of Oklahoma, however, say that land hasn’t belonged to the Muscogee since Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
If the Court sides with Murphy, he would have to be tried again in federal court. But perhaps more significant: More than 40 percent of the state, including its second-largest city, Tulsa, could once again be considered “Indian country.”
“This is the biggest thing out here since statehood,” says Lindsay Robertson, director of the Center for the Study of American Indian Law and Policy at the University of Oklahoma. “It’s extraordinary.”