TULSA, Okla. — Cherokee County District Attorney Jack Thorp said a Tuesday evening forum with Gov. Kevin Stitt and a group of prosecutors to discuss the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt ruling was a solid idea conceptually but turned into a waste of time.
The forum, held at Cox Business Convention Center in Tulsa, drew criticism before it began. Participants said the event was designed to help victims of criminal cases affected by McGirt, and to discuss the ruling’s impact on how criminals are prosecuted in the state. But tribal leaders were skeptical about the forum’s intent, with Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. reportedly calling it “an anti-McGirt rally for political reasons.”
Tribal leaders said they didn’t receive meaningful invitations to the forum, which quickly went off the rails and was cut short after the audience became hostile to presenters. Tribal members held up signs reminding Stitt the forum was taking place on “Indian land,” and also brandished red cards when he or other panelists said something they deemed objectionable. Observers said the cards were generously used against Stitt and Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler. Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill accused both men of using such platforms to “spread fear rather than helpful information.”
Stitt ended the “McGirt v Oklahoma Community Forum” roughly an hour earlier than planned amid jeering from the audience as he tried to explain how the high court’s decision had unintended consequences for victims of crime regardless of tribal citizenship.
“Nobody on this panel created the McGirt situation,” Stitt said shortly before ending the program. “This is a complicated issue, and we have 400,000 natives who live in the state of Oklahoma. We’ve got 3.6 million non-natives living in the state of Oklahoma. We need to keep all Oklahomans safe.”
Thorp, chief prosecutor for Cherokee, Adair, Sequoyah and Wagoner counties, said shutting the forum down probably was the right move, because it was not effective.
“I don’t think anything would have been accomplished if we had continued on,” he said. “There were some safety concerns. I want to keep an open discourse about McGirt, but nothing will ever be accomplished if representatives of the tribes are not present. It was truly a travesty to proceed with the forum without their presence.”
Thorp said had leaders from the Five Tribes been present at the forum, it could have mitigated the contentious atmosphere.
“There are different stories as to why they weren’t in attendance, but the perception was that they weren’t invited or wanted,” he said. “That was a huge mistake by the organizers.”
The forum, which was organized by Kunzweiler and Stitt’s office, was designed to inform the public about the implications of the McGirt decision. Many Native American activists and attorneys have accused Stitt and prosecutors of trying to stir up public sentiment against the decision. Most of the prosecutors on Tuesday were subjected to questions about why tribal leaders or their attorneys general were not among the panelists.
“Had an official invitation been extended to Muscogee Nation, we would have welcomed the opportunity to work with local officials to make this an informative and productive session. But that invitation never came,” Hill wrote in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. “Unfortunately, this has become a pattern of behavior.”
Stitt, a Cherokee Nation citizen himself, said his office emailed attorneys general for the Cherokee, Choctaw and Muscogee nations on June 3 notifying them about the forum. But the tribes each said they did not receive a meaningful invitation.
Okmulgee-based attorney Brenda Golden briefly addressed the crowd in the forum to call for civility, but maintained that the state should understand that the Supreme Court has affirmed tribal sovereignty.
“Tribes and the state are equals as far as the federal government is concerned,” Golden said. “We are a sovereign nation, and the same for our states. They (the states) don’t like that. The fact that now their power is getting taken away is why we are here today.”
Last year, in its McGirt ruling, the Supreme Court determined the Muscogee Nation’s reservation had never been disestablished, which also applied to the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations. It effectively handed tribes jurisdiction over criminal matters involving natives, which resulted in the dismissal of many cases due to the state’s lack of the authority to try them.
The ruling states that crimes committed by natives, whether against other natives or non-natives, must be handled under tribal and federal authority. Crimes committed by non-natives against natives also must go through the federal/tribal court system. Only crimes committed by non-natives against other non-natives remain within the state’s purview.
Many of the cases tossed at the state level have been picked up by U.S. attorney’s offices and tribal attorneys general, while in some instances, those convicted of crimes have been released back into the public.
“I am proud of District 27’s coordination and partnerships with our tribal prosecutor groups,” Thorp said. “I wanted to make that point. However, every part of the McGirt decision is problematic in implementation, and it must be addressed or victims of crime will continue to suffer. I will address hostile crowds every day if it somehow moves forward the solution to the McGirt problems.”
Stitt has been open about his attitude toward the high court’s ruling, while Indigenous nations have hailed it as a win for tribal sovereignty. In April, Stitt said he doesn’t think there has been a bigger issue that’s impacted a state than the McGirt decision. And in early July, he indicated the state may sue the federal government over the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Meanwhile, tribes like the Cherokee Nation have invested millions to bolster their criminal justice systems.
Hoskin said the tribe has prioritized expanding and reinforcing the system to provide support for victims and their families, and to keep everyone within its reservation safe, while defending the nation’s sovereignty.
“While it is unfortunate that some of our political leaders are focused on flashy headlines — regardless of what is actually best for victims and regardless of what is actually backed by fact — we will continue our important work to cooperate with local, federal and state partners on real solutions,” Hoskin said. “The victims in the cases dismissed or retried as a result of the state of Oklahoma’s decades of acting outside of its jurisdiction deserve our full and unwavering support, not to be used as a political tool.”
The Cherokee Nation has doubled its team of victims’ services advocates, dedicated $3 million to support victims and families, and estimate another $35 million worth of investments to expand the capacity of its legal system. Several new marshals have been hired to serve the 14-county reservation.
Crawford and Thornton write for the Tahlequah Daily Press. The Associated Press contributed to this story.