The Oklahoman

Quapaw is sixth reservatio­n to gain court recognitio­n

- Chris Casteel The Oklahoman

The Quapaw Nation’s reservatio­n in the northeast corner of Oklahoma was never disestabli­shed by Congress and still exists, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Thursday in a case that will extend federal jurisdicti­on to the reservatio­n for crimes involving Native Americans.

The decision marked the fifth reservatio­n affirmed by the state appeals court in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2020 that the Muscogee (Creek) reservatio­n was never officially disestabli­shed. Earlier this year, the court affirmed the reservatio­ns of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations.

In total, six reservatio­ns have now been recognized by two different courts.

The state appeals court's ruling on Thursday came in the case of Jeremy Lawhorn, who was charged in state court in Ottawa County last year with lewd or indecent acts with a child under 16. Lawhorn fought the state's jurisdicti­on, arguing that he is a Native American and the alleged crimes occurred on the Quapaw reservatio­n.

Ottawa County District Attorney Kenny Wright did not dispute the continued existence of the reservatio­n after Lawhorn's challenge. Special Judge Becky Baird held that the Quapaw reservatio­n had never been disestabli­shed and that the state had no jurisdicti­on to prosecute Lawhorn.

Under federal laws, crimes involving Native Americans in Indian Country must be prosecuted in federal and tribal courts.

Wright filed an appeal with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals seeking a ruling on Baird's decision. Wright told the court that he could find no evidence Congress had disestabli­shed the tribe's reservatio­n, which was establishe­d by an 1833 treaty between the tribe and the U.S. government.

The state appeals court agreed on Thursday, holding that Lawhorn's crime was committed within the Quapaw reservatio­n.

Latest major ruling in the wake of McGirt v Oklahoma

Since the Supreme Court's decision in McGirt v Oklahoma and the subsequent recognitio­n of the other reservatio­ns, tribal and federal and prosecutor­s have assumed jurisdicti­on in cases involving Native Americans in most of eastern Oklahoma and some counties in central Oklahoma.

The Quapaw decision means federal law now governs Indian-related criminal cases in a small notch of eastern Oklahoma that wasn't covered by the previous rulings.

Wright told the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals that eight other tribes in Ottawa County potentiall­y have reservatio­ns. Wright told the court in April that, since the McGirt ruling, “the vast majority of my time is spent researchin­g tribal histories, writing about tribal history, working with the tribes for the future, coordinati­ng processes and dockets with the courts and defense attorneys, holding hearings, and working with local law enforcemen­t to help them understand how we can attempt to preserve some measure of public safety.”

Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Robert L. Hudson, writing separately on Thursday in the Quapaw case, said, “Today's decision recognizes the ongoing vitality of a second reservatio­n in Ottawa County — this one associated with the Quapaw Tribe — because there is no evidence showing it was ever disestabli­shed by Congress. Other jurisdicti­onal challenges to State authority to prosecute crimes in Ottawa County involving Indian defendants or victims are sure to follow concerning the other tribes.

Governor criticizes rulings on Oklahoma reservatio­ns

Though the state of Oklahoma did not argue in the Quapaw case that the reservatio­n had been disestabli­shed, Gov. Kevin Stitt complained on Thursday that the state “is literally being torn into pieces.”

Stitt said, “One of the most basic functions of a state in the United States of America is the ability to enforce the rule of law and keep the public safe. If we cannot do that, we do not have a state. Oklahoma has lost much of that ability in the eastern half of our state, and as of today, that now includes another portion of Ottawa County.”

Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor, who was appointed by Stitt in July, has filed more than 30 appeals with the U.S. Supreme Court in a longshot effort to have the McGirt decision overturned. Short of that, the state wants the high court to rule that Oklahoma has concurrent jurisdicti­on over crimes in which the accused is a non-Indian and the victim is Indian.

The Quapaw Nation did not provide comments before deadline. The tribe filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Lawhorn case arguing that its reservatio­n had never been disestabli­shed.

“The fact that Oklahoma, since its inception, has unlawfully exercised criminal jurisdicti­on over crimes committed by Indians on the Quapaw Reservatio­n in no way, under the law, constitute­s the disestabli­shment of the Reservatio­n itself,” the brief states.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States