The quaintness of Oklahoma, and the monumental case that is shaking the state.

Oklahoma has a polite stillness that is virtually impossible to replicate. This morning, as we drove to our client from our hotel in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, we were stuck behind a tractor for most of the 20-minute commute; however, unlike my typical response to traffic, unsavory, I was fine with it. I enjoyed observing the farms in action, the open calm space, and a side of America I don’t get enough of. In fact, I even confided into my coworker that I sometimes ignorantly overlook this aspect of our country, which is a majority of the land.

Despite the southern charm, Oklahoma has a storm brewing. There is a generational lawsuit that is redefining not only native rights but also the state of Oklahoma.

Back story

Oklahoma is well known for being the destination of one of America’s most devastating blemishes, the Trail of Tears. The Trail of Tears was the act of displacing approximately 60,000 American Indians from their tribal lands throughout the south and mid-west to reservations, located in Oklahoma, in and around 1839.

Following the devastating Trail of Tears and years of unfavorable lawsuits, American Indian lands had been restricted to a unique scatterplot of reservations throughout the state. As one Oklahoma Tribal Member shared with me, “There is a dollar store and competing Tribal Casino on every corner”. This may be an exaggeration, but it is evident that competition is strong within the state; however, the non-organic home of many American Indian tribes is molding into something new.

Current story

In July 2020, the Supreme court ruled in the McGirt vs. Oklahoma case that approximately half of Oklahoma was Tribal Lands. This case is seen as one of the most far-reaching cases for American Indians in the U.S. courts in decades. The case implies that either tribal courts or federal courts are responsible for jurisdiction in these areas. Not only legal responsibilities but now the approximately 1.8M people who live on these lands have just switched their governance accountability from state to tribal.

The transition to Tribal Lands is a large victory for Oklahoma tribal leadership, but with the victory comes large responsibilities and decisions. If ever there was a time for Oklahoma tribal governments to show strength in unity, the time is now. There are important questions that need to be answered, as related to jurisdiction, state tax revenues, and infrastructure, and the world is watching.

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