Photo credit: Kelsey Cooper, Cherokee and Choctaw
On Tuesday, July 13th, Indigenous peoples from many nations shut down Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt’s anti-Indigenous “victim impact” forum, which had no tribal representation and was intended to incite fear among the public in Stitt’s continued effort to subvert and overturn the 2020 McGirt Supreme Court decision. Jordan Harmon, Mvskoke/Creek citizen and tribal attorney described it as “a room literally packed with Natives from all different tribes in unified anger and with a very clear and direct message.” That message? Tribal nations and communities will not back down when it comes to tribal sovereignty and our lands. In a press release issued by Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Principal Chief David W. Hill explained:
One-sided political campaigns like the one being held here tonight do not promote healing or progress for anyone nor do they make our communities safer…Participating in one-sided forums intended only to spread misinformation serves to inflame the politics around the issue…government officials who wish to undermine sovereignty should not expect that we will help them do it by participating in every sensational scheme they can conjure up.
Despite this truth, Principal Chief Hill also made it clear that his nation was not even invited to collaborate or participate on the panel by Governor Stitt or the District Attorneys, stating, “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.”
The McGirt ruling, decided by a conservative-majority court with conservative judge and Trump pick Justice Gorsuch delivering the opinion, determined the state of Oklahoma was illegally exerting jurisdiction over the Mvskoke/Creek (and Yuchi) Reservation and further, that this reservation was never disestablished by Congress. This ruling has been extended to all of the Five Tribes – Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole nations – through various Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals cases. Since McGirt, Governor Stitt, Tulsa County DA Kunzweiler, Channel 6 news, and others waged a disinformation campaign against Oklahoma’s Tribes, perpetuating falsehoods about the impact of McGirt on non-native Oklahomans and the state. Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief Hill’s press release also detailed DA Kunzweiler’s complicity in this anti-Indigenous rhetoric. He said,
In May, we learned District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler had begun hosting events throughout Eastern Oklahoma regarding the McGirt decision. Sadly, Mr. Kunzweiler seemed to be using these platforms to spread fear, rather than helpful information.
And this was certainly the tone the six District Attorneys and Governor Stitt set at the forum. On the lies spread by Governor Stitt and the District Attorneys on the panel, Cherokee Nation citizen and attorney Carly Hotvedt explained:
The rhetoric at this McGirt panel is blaming the SCOTUS decision on the feds failing to prosecute. Oklahoma has THREE federal court districts which is way more than any other state of a similar population. Three districts were specifically designed to accommodate the additional anticipated case loads coming from Indian Territory. They just need to be appropriately funded.
Despite the State’s best efforts to disseminate anti-Indigenous rhetoric, Indigenous peoples in attendance – many of whom are lawyers, law students, or otherwise well-versed in Federal Indian Law – did not allow the lies to continue. Walela Knight, Cherokee and Choctaw, explained, “It was exactly the propaganda and fear mongering we expected. We stood up and put our backs to him when Stitt was speaking his lies.” While it is evident Oklahoma natives expected this rhetoric, it is also evident Governor Stitt and the six District Attorneys were not expecting an overwhelmingly native audience. Bineshi Albert, of the Yuchi and Anishinaabe nations said,
It was clear we (Native/Indigenous Peoples) were not the audience he expected for this “community forum.” It was clear with who was on the panel. It was clear when [Stitt] took no questions from the actual audience. It was clear when he ended the forum an hour early. What is also clear is that he didn’t want to hear from Indigenous people who are part of the community.
Although Governor Stitt did not want to hear from Oklahoma natives, they gave him no choice as they rattled off various relevant Supreme Court cases, corrected misinformation on the spot, and asked tough questions from the audience that the state could not answer.
Governor Stitt, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is widely unpopular throughout Indian Territory. Despite being a tribal member, Stitt has focused his gubernatorial career on dismantling tribal sovereignty, first by picking a losing battle against the Tribes over state tribal gaming compacts and, immediately following the McGirt Supreme Court decision, successfully asking Andrew Wheeler’s EPA to strip Oklahoma Tribes of environmental authority over their lands. For Stitt, a Big Oil lap dog, not being able to create and implement one giant regulatory rollback for extractive industries in Oklahoma remains a looming concern. Many have pointed out that Stitt’s own family tree demonstrates his Cherokee ancestor actually was not native and bought their way onto the Dawes Rolls in an act of fraud, which may explain Stitt’s anti-Indigenous outlook on nation to nation relationships. Kelsey Cooper, Cherokee and Choctaw, lifted this up at the forum exclaiming, “let’s get someone up there who didn’t buy their citizenship!” After consistent disruption of the state’s continued lies, Governor Stitt ended the forum 40 minutes early and left. Perhaps Cheyenna Morgan, Keetowah and Oglala Lakota, put it best: “What tonight showed was that we aren’t going to take this bullshit anymore. This is our land…We want our sovereignty. Honor the treaties or pay the consequences.”
The consequences for Oklahoma? Well considering Oklahoma Tribes led the way in Covid-19 vaccine rollout, continue to be the backbone of Oklahoma’s economy, help fund Oklahoma’s public school system while the Governor and Legislature continue decreasing funding or holding it hostage, and benefit and protect everyone – not just tribal citizens – who live within their tribal jurisdiction, the consequences of the state biting the hands who feed it could indeed be dire.