Mari Hulbutta traces her ancestry to the “Trail of Tears” in the 1800s
, when her great-great-grandparents, members of the Muscogee Creek Nation, trudged from present-day Alabama to a territory west of the Mississippi River.
The Creeks settled on a reservation where the U.S. government promised to protect their land and sovereignty. But, in 1907, the new state of Oklahoma assumed control over the Creek territory. Since then, generations of Hulbutta’s family have remained on their original, federally allotted parcel, miles from any town and with limited resources.
Last year, Hulbutta celebrated when the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, in McGirt v. Oklahoma, that Congress never officially disbanded the 3-million-acre Muscogee Creek reservation and that it remains outside of the state’s criminal jurisdiction.
Before the ruling, says Hulbutta, 29, who also is a Seminole descendant and a member of the Chickasaw Nation, “It was unclear how I could even describe my tribal lands to people.” History books had inaccurately said reservations no longer existed in Oklahoma and that the tribe “didn’t have any clear statutory authority,” she says.
Like Hulbutta, Creek leaders hailed the decision as a long-overdue acknowledgement of their sovereignty over about 3 million acres of eastern Oklahoma. Appeals courts have since expanded the ruling to lands occupied by five other tribes — Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Chickasaw and Quapaw — covering a total of about 9 million acres, or 43 percent of eastern Oklahoma. About 85 percent of the estimated 2 million people living in the region are non-Native.
State officials, who long assumed the reservations had been disbanded when Oklahoma became a state, worry about the ruling’s ramifications. “Oklahoma is literally being torn into pieces,” Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said. Ryan Leonard, the governor’s special counsel for Native American affairs, says if McGirt is allowed to stand, “Oklahoma will cease to exist in the form it has for more than a century.”
In September, the state petitioned the high court to reverse the McGirt decision, saying it threatens to upend a host of regulations affecting issues ranging from zoning to taxation. Nearby states, Oklahoma cities, the oil and gas industry and law enforcement groups have filed amicus briefs supporting the state’s petition.
The case has heightened a complex debate about how to make reparations to the country’s nearly 10 million Native Americans, whose ancestors suffered injustices that cost them millions of acres of tribal lands and restricted their ability to care for and protect their people. The Department of the Interior holds about 55 million acres of land in trust for tribes, meaning it holds title to the land and is charged with protecting it — and its natural resources — for the benefit of the tribes and their members. While many of the nation’s 575 Native American and Alaska Native tribes want to regain ownership or management of their former territories, many states, businesses, property owners and others fear losing access to resources or protection of their own rights.
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