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What A Supreme Court Ruling Means For Native Americans And Oklahoma


A major ruling today from the Supreme Court found nearly half of Oklahoma falls within an Indian reservation. The case was about whether a Muscogee Creek man in Oklahoma could be prosecuted by state authorities for a crime that happened within the original boundaries of the reservation, boundaries that had been violated or ignored by the state for more than a century. The 5-4 decision was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch. Joining us now is journalist Rebecca Nagle. She's covered the case extensively, and she joins us now from Tahlequah in eastern Oklahoma.


REBECCA NAGLE: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Would you outline for us briefly what the central question at stake in this decision was?

NAGLE: The central question is actually really straightforward, which is, did Congress ever pass a law that terminated, got rid of or otherwise diminished the reservation of Muscogee Creek Nation? And the answer to that question is yeah - I mean, is no, that never happened.

And what is groundbreaking about Justice Gorsuch's decision is that it's very straightforward. You know, he read the text of the law, the text of the treaty and sided with the tribe. And unfortunately, what happens a lot of the time in federal Indian law is that even when the law is really clearly on our side, courts will find ways to rule against tribes. So yeah, today is definitely a victory.

KELLY: Right. The thrust of the argument, as laid out by Gorsuch and the other justices, was Congress promised something, and so the country needs to live up to those obligations unless and until Congress changes its mind, changes the law, and they haven't.

NAGLE: Yeah. I think one of my favorite lines from the decision, you know, is that Justice Gorsuch says, you know, we are just holding the government to its word. And in a comment where he's, I think, responding to, you know, the dissent and, you know, this - it was a close decision. It was a 5-4 decision, so one vote and it could've gone the other way. But he said, you know, that a lot of the arguments made in this case were that holding up these promises - the consequences of that are too great, so we should cast a blind eye. And we reject that, Gorsuch says. And so, you know, hopefully this is the beginning of a change in our court system in the United States where the law of the land, as treaties are, begin to be respected.

KELLY: I want to note you are a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. You live there in eastern Oklahoma, where we have reached you. What do you see as the significance of this ruling beyond the legal questions we've just been going through?

NAGLE: It's huge. You know, I always say I think that, like, the chapter of Cherokee history that everybody talks about and knows is the Trail of Tears. And we survived the Trail of Tears, and we rebuilt our tribe because we had sovereignty, and we had a land base. And after we survived that, in the early 1900s, allotment happened. And Oklahoma was created on top of our land. And I think that we've actually never recovered and rebuilt from allotment. It's just been this slow bleed of land, of language, of culture, of sovereignty.

And so for me, as a Cherokee citizen, what this decision represents is an opportunity for us to actually start to rebuild what we've lost as a tribe and to strengthen our sovereignty that our state and, at times, the federal government hasn't acknowledged.

KELLY: You're a journalist, and you're a beautiful writer. I just want to close by quoting something you tweeted today right as this decision came down. You wrote, it is raining in eastern Oklahoma hard after weeks of drought. I feel like the ancestors are crying, which says a lot.

NAGLE: Yeah. I mean, I think for most of us, it's been a really emotional day. You know, as Indigenous people in the United States, we're really, really used to people in power not upholding the law and not siding with us, and that's not what happened today.

KELLY: It is not.

Rebecca Nagle, journalist and host of the podcast "This Land," thank you.

NAGLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.