The municipal commission tasked with representing Tulsa’s Indigenous community is asking the city to rethink its decision to challenge a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
After more than an hour of public comments from a standing room only crowd, the Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission voted unanimously at a special meeting Wednesday night to send a letter to Mayor G.T. Bynum and the Tulsa City Council requesting that the city withdraw its amicus brief in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta.
The state of Oklahoma is seeking to have the U.S. Supreme Court review the case and potentially use it as a vehicle to overturn or limit its July 2020 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which affirmed that Congress never disestablished the Muscogee Nation’s reservation. It has since been applied to the reservations of five additional tribes: Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Quapaw.
The McGirt decision also means that the state of Oklahoma does not have criminal jurisdiction to prosecute crimes by or against tribal citizens within those tribes’ reservation boundaries.
Despite the commission’s stated purpose to advise the city on issues facing its Indigenous community, multiple members reiterated during Wednesday’s meeting that they were not consulted or given notice of the city’s intent to file an amicus brief.
“To say that I’m disappointed in the city of Tulsa’s decision is an understatement,” commission member Kimberly Teehee said. “We are supposed to work hand in glove with the Mayor’s Office, and that hasn’t happened here.
“This public discussion should have happened before the decision was made. We know what happens when we are not at the table when decisions are made about us.”
Multiple attendees also voiced frustration not only about the city’s decisions to file the amicus brief and not to consult with the commission.
“I never thought we would be in this position where we’re blindsided by the action of the city and Mayor’s Office,” former Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission member Robert Anquoe said. “I always thought the mayor’s office was our partner.”
After the meeting, commission chairwoman Cheryl Cohenour said the letter would be sent to Bynum and the City Council before the end of the week. Plans are also in the works to reach out to other community-specific commissions and boards for support, including the Greater Tulsa African-American Affairs Commission, the Greater Tulsa Area Hispanic/Latinx Commission and the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women.
At least one City Council member at Wednesday night’s meeting said she was also caught off guard by the decision to join the fray.
“I can’t speak on behalf of my colleagues, but personally, I am so sorry about this,” City Councilor Kara Joy McKee said, noting that she was blindsided by the decision to file an amicus brief siding with the state of Oklahoma. “I am not OK with this.”
When asked Wednesday, Mayor G.T. Bynum confirmed that the city advised the Cherokee and Chickasaw nations that it would file a brief siding with the state, but only because those tribes’ leaders specifically asked about the city’s plans.
A Cherokee Nation spokeswoman said the Tahlequah-based tribe was advised of the city’s intent one day before it filed the brief.
Records received through an open records request show that the Oklahoma Solicitor General’s Office asked the municipal attorney in August if the city of Tulsa would be willing to file a friend of the court brief in a case similar to the Castro-Huerta case to provide “an on-the-ground perspective of how McGirt is playing out in Tulsa on the criminal and civil side.” The state has since dismissed its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in that case and soon after filed the appeal in the Castro-Huerta case.
The three tribes with a jurisdictional claim to at least part of Tulsa — the Cherokee, Muscogee and Osage nations — have all publicly criticized the city’s decision to side with the state of Oklahoma.
Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill released a statement Tuesday afternoon and attended part of the meeting Wednesday night to express his concerns with the city’s decision.
“We’ve had a great working relationship with Tulsa and intend to keep it that way,” Hill said. “Hopefully this is something that can be straightened out, but the only way this is going to work is if we’ll all work together.”
Prior to the meeting, about 40 people gathered at Fourth Street and Boston Avenue to rally and march to City Hall. Carrying handmade signs, hand drums and flags from the American Indian Movement and the Cherokee Nation, the group called out “Honor the treaties!” and “You’re on stolen land!” while parading down Boston.
After the meeting, Mayor Bynum issued a statement acknowledging the commission’s meeting and its efforts to meet with Indigenous Tulsans but made no mention of the commission’s request to withdraw the amicus brief. He also expressed a desire to continue working with the principal chiefs of the Cherokee, Muscogee and Osage nations, despite “principled disagreements.”
In an interview with the Tulsa World on Tuesday, Bynum said it was his decision to have the city file the amicus brief based on concerns he said he has heard from the Tulsa Police Department.
“The main reason was that our officers in the field have seen real practical and harmful results from that decision,” Bynum said, “and we felt it was important that they have a voice with the court as the largest city impacted by the decision in conveying those concerns that they have seen: the crimes that are not being prosecuted, not because of any, I don’t think, ill-intent on anyone’s part but just a large lack of capacity to handle that case load.”