Quapaw is sixth reservation to gain court recognition
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 fifth reservation affirmed by the state appeals court in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2020 that the Muscogee (Creek) reservation was never officially disestablished. Earlier this year, the court affirmed the reservations of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations.
In total, six reservations have now been recognized by two different 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 filed an appeal with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals seeking a ruling on Baird's decision. Wright told the court that he could find 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 filed more than 30 appeals with the U.S. Supreme Court in a longshot effort 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 filed 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.