What does Supreme Court decision on Oklahoma Native American territory mean for New York tribes?

Aug 20, 2020

A recent Supreme Court ruling found that a large portion of Oklahoma still falls into Native American Territory for the Muscogee Creek Tribe and other Midwestern tribes.


  

Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) territory stretches across present-day New York, Ontario, and Quebec, with re-located groups also in Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

In the majority opinion of McGirt v. Oklahoma, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote: 

“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.” 

It’s an historic ruling, one that has uplifted the thousands of tribal citizens in Oklahoma. But with Native nations sprinkled all throughout the United States, including territory of the Haudenosaunee in New York, what does it mean for their sovereignty? Mohawk radio host John Kane said it puts the states on notice. 

“In the absence of a legitimate transfer, and I don’t mean just a claim at this point,

John Kane is a Mohawk radio host and activist living on the Seneca Nation.
Credit WBFO

  Congress can pass and try to reclassify lands, but if we [Native people] aren’t consenting to it, is it legitimate?” said Kane.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the United States are signatories in the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794, which among other things, secured over one million acres for Confederacy tribes, and one that has been increasingly ignored by the federal government over the years. 

“They make it very clearly that they recognize that our land is ours, and that the United States will never claim the same, nor will they disservice in the free use or enjoyment of that land,” Kane said of the 1794 treaty with the Iroquois. “As per the Supreme Court ruling, the question is has there ever been any legal change in that designation?” 

Robert Odawi Porter served two terms as Seneca chief legal counsel, as founding chairman of Seneca Holdings LLC, and as the Seneca Nation’s 67th President after being elected in 2010. He is now in the private sector.
Credit Odawi Law PLLC

 Several area tribes have had varying legal battles for land ownership, including the Seneca’s over Grand Island. Robert Odawi Porter, former Seneca Nation president and current lawyer with Odawi Law, said those 18th Century treaties with the Haudenosaunee, like Canandaigua, were ratified by Congress and should be enforced.

“This ruling affirms that the reservation boundaries that were established by Congress through the treaties, remains the defined boundary of tribal lands,” said Porter. “Notwithstanding the fact that maybe those lands were illegally acquired by the state or non-Indian individuals.” 

Calls for comment from the current Seneca administration were not returned.

The McGirt v. Oklahoma case arose over criminal jurisdiction, when Jimcy McGirt (Muscogee Creek) was charged with sex crimes by Oklahoma authorties instead of federal, and the court ruling reflected that. But Porter says it means so much more.

 “Jurisdiction really is about your sovereignty, and that’s the term we use to describe the assertion of governmental power within a geographic area,” Porter said when asked about legal jurisdiction of Native lands. “So the existence of the boundary is really a game changer in terms of recalibrating understanding of what governments have jurisdiction within that reservation.” 

While Kane believes the ruling is historic, he says the federal government is still steadfast in its tight leash view of sovereignty for tribes. 

“They [feds] haven’t waivered at all in their view that they have control,” said Kane. “Even as we go from a policy of extermination, to removal, to assimilation, determination, and into self-determination the federal government makes it clear, that when they say self-determination they don’t mean the international standard which is essentially consummates to statehood, they mean internal self-determination.” 

One Central New York nation, the Cayugas, have already publicly declared the McGirt case as a victory for their own claims to lands around Cayuga Lake.