Supreme Court Hears Murder Case Involving Muscogee Creek Nation Land
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A case before the Supreme Court asks, who really governs eastern Oklahoma? On the surface, this is a single murder case. Patrick Murphy is on death row. His appeal reaches back into painful American history. His lawyers say he should never have been tried in Oklahoma state courts because he is Creek Indian on historic Creek land which the United States granted native nations in the 1800s. Creeks agree, saying that only Creek courts or federal courts can rule there. Lawyers before the court raised a sweeping question of who can enforce the law or make law or even collect taxes for many people across half of an American state. Let's start with NPR's Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In the Supreme Court chamber, lawyers representing the state said that when Oklahoma became a state, that automatically stripped the tribe of its land rights. Lawyers for the tribe said that the Supreme Court has long recognized reservation boundaries unless they're explicitly revoked by Congress, something that Congress decided not to do when it last considered Oklahoma's Indian territory in 1906. The court seemed caught between its own prior rulings and the practicalities of the matter.
Justice Alito - how can it be that none of this was recognized by anybody or asserted by the Creek nations for a hundred years?
Justice Breyer - there are 1.8 million people living in this area. They've built their lives on municipal regulations, property law, dog-related law. If we say this land belongs to the tribe, what happens to all those people, all those laws?
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Nina Totenberg. And by the way, the area being discussed here includes a large city - Tulsa, Okla. The principal chief of the Muskogee Creek nation was in the courtroom. And James Floyd is with us now in our studios. Good morning, sir.
JAMES FLOYD: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by. What, at a basic level, is the Creek Nation's claim to a good part of eastern Oklahoma?
FLOYD: Well, the case speaks to our claim. And in the land base was our historic land base granted to us when we were removed from Alabama and Georgia to Indian Territory, which is now state of Oklahoma. And the city of Tulsa has been built around much of our area.
INSKEEP: And the federal government said in the 1800s, we're throwing you off your old land. Here's your new land. But you have this land forever.
FLOYD: That's correct. And the land is ours. And so our historic boundaries became a reservation. The reservation was never diminished or eliminated by Congress or the courts. And so we're in the situation that we find ourselves in. To us, it's always been our land and our boundaries. And we don't see a problem.
INSKEEP: Although lawyers for the state of Oklahoma - I was in the courtroom yesterday - lawyers for the state of Oklahoma said, OK, fine. You can't find a specific place in Congress - in legislation in Congress where the reservation is explicitly taken away, but the Federal Government has walked all over your reservation. The state of Oklahoma has walked all over your reservation. They've enforced the law in these areas for like a century. Why would that change now?
FLOYD: Well, during the period before statehood, when we had an allotment of land within the Muskogee Creek Nation boundaries and state law was being formulated essentially and the state became recognized as a state, we still existed. We still had our courts. We still had our schools. And we still had the governance of our people. The state basically came in on top of that and imposed its will on us. We continued to have governance at a much smaller scale until the mid-'70s.
INSKEEP: And you assert that you still have rights even though those rights have not been enforced for quite some time.
FLOYD: Yes, we do.
INSKEEP: Now, an appeals court, we should note, has already sided with you. But the state lawyers say that if this ruling is upheld by the Supreme Court, this could be bad. They'd have to stop collecting many taxes on people who claim to be Creek citizens. They would have all sorts of businesses that might lose their licenses, that there are something like 2,000 criminal convictions that could potentially be overturned. Is all of that true?
FLOYD: We believe that's greatly exaggerated really question the numbers and really the thought because essentially, again, as you described earlier, this is primarily a capital criminal case. I know the arguments ranged wide yesterday and went into taxes and some other things, but we're essentially looking at the fact of the prosecution of individuals, particularly tribal members, upon our own land. And that would be through federal court.
And the Muskogee Creek Nation has always worked with the United States federal district courts, and we would continue to do that. And so the continuity would remain basically the same. For all people within the boundaries, there would be no overnight shift if the case was upheld.
INSKEEP: Well, let me just ask you about the possibilities that were raised there. If it was found that Creeks have more authority than you have been given in eastern Oklahoma, would you be going to businesses in Tulsa and saying, your bar needs a new license or has no license now, for example?
FLOYD: No, we would not be going - posting notices on businesses and saying, hey, call this number or something like that. We would continue to work with the state and the federal government as we have since statehood. And agreements that we have historically entered into with both entities, we continue to do that and expand that with law enforcement is a good example. And, if anything, we would use that decision to further solidify agreements with the state of Oklahoma and with the federal government.
INSKEEP: Why is it important to the Muskogee Creek Nation to keep and even strengthen this - I guess you'd say a shred of sovereignty that you have from historic times and continue to have this unusual, at least to people from the outside, collaborative relationship with the state of Oklahoma? Why is it important to you to keep going that way?
FLOYD: Because I think right now, at this time, we have crimes that are going unpunished within Muskogee Creek Nation. We do not have the authority to prosecute anybody other than Indian people within our boundaries. And so if you look even at the Violence Against Women Act, if a non-Indian abuses an Indian person, then we do not have the authority to prosecute the case. The FBI or the state really then has a choice of doing so, and if they choose not to, which they have in some cases, the person goes free.
INSKEEP: So you need to emphasize that the federal government has a role - a larger role to play there.
Chief Floyd, thanks so much.
FLOYD: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: James Floyd is principal chief of the Muskogee Creek Nation.
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