Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and a panel of district attorneys sought Tuesday to explain their views on how the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision had unintended consequences for victims of crime regardless of tribal citizenship. But Stitt ended the “McGirt v. Oklahoma Community Forum” roughly an hour earlier than planned, descending from the podium to jeers and chants of “Shame on you” due to audience members’ belief that prosecutors disrespected tribal sovereignty.
At some points it was hard to hear the speakers as they attempted to explain their views while members of the audience decried the lack of tribal representation on the panel.
“Nobody on this panel created the McGirt situation,” Stitt said shortly before ending the program. “This is a complicated issue, and we have 400,000 natives who live in the state of Oklahoma. We’ve got 3.6 million nonnatives living in the state of Oklahoma. We need to keep all Oklahomans safe.”
The panel’s heavy skew toward prosecutors, though, was a source of frustration for Native Americans who attended the forum. Most of the prosecutors, including Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, were subject to questions about why tribal leaders or their attorneys general were not among the panelists.
Stitt read the last question to the panel around 7:15 p.m. Tuesday before appearing to concede the level of frustration among the crowd and saying, “I know we have people in here from other states right now” and commenting that he was glad “the press” was present.
The remarks drew backlash from the audience, as did an earlier attempt by Kunzweiler to explain the significance of the Oklahoma state seal to those in the room.
“The DAs are concerned about the natives and nonnatives that voted them into office,” Stitt told the crowd. Turning to the group of panelists, he told them, “I know you guys’ heart. You’re trying to warn people that there’s a problem brewing on crime and prosecuting.”
At least 50 activists gathered across the street from the Cox Business Convention Center, the site of the forum, around 5 p.m. Tuesday to display what event organizer and Okmulgee-based attorney Brenda Golden said was an act of unity.
Before they walked to the convention center, Golden read a statement from Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill in which he explained that he would not attend the forum hosted by the state.
Attendees of the preforum gathering held up signs saying “Welcome to the Mvskoke Reservation,” “Stop politicizing pain” and “Illegal jurisdiction since 1907.” The American Indian Movement flag, along with several of the Five Tribes’ flags, were flown above the group as they walked to the convention center.
Several of the signs made appearances in the crowd during the forum, as did red cards audience members raised regularly when a panelist or Stitt said something they considered objectionable.
“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,” Hill wrote in his statement released Tuesday afternoon. “Unfortunately, this has become a pattern of behavior.”
The Tulsa World reported earlier this month that Stitt’s office emailed attorneys general for the Cherokee, Choctaw and Muscogee nations on June 3 notifying them of plans for the event. But the tribes each said they did not receive a meaningful invitation, with Hill going so far as to say a meeting with Kunzweiler in May was unproductive.
“Sadly, Mr. Kunzweiler seemed to be using these platforms to spread fear rather than helpful information,” Hill said, referencing a previous town hall about the McGirt decision.
Kunzweiler on Tuesday, though, said, “We’re not political leaders. We’re law enforcement. We want to at least help victims understand how they can communicate with their leaders.”
During the forum, Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado described the ruling in Seminole Nation citizen Jimcy McGirt’s case as being “a Supreme Court decision that was thrust on the state of Oklahoma.” The comment frustrated many in the crowd and brought several calls for the state to “Honor the treaties” and “Honor the Constitution.”
“The District 27 DA’s Office immediately partnered with the Cherokee Nation,” said District Attorney Jack Thorp, whose jurisdiction includes Cherokee and Wagoner counties, of his office’s response to the ruling. “We helped train their prosecutors. We helped set up their system. We have also worked with the Muscogee Nation.”
But, he said, “the problems with the McGirt decision are real.”
The Cherokee and Muscogee nations issued announcements last week explaining how they’ve expanded their court systems’ capabilities and increased the number of tribal law enforcement officers in the year since the McGirt ruling.
District 12 District Attorney Matt Ballard, whose jurisdiction includes Rogers County, described at the forum a climate of uncertainty with regard to which cases dismissed on McGirt grounds were eligible for prosecution in federal or tribal courts.
Thorp said federal prosecutors are “racking those cases up where they’re never going to be able to try them all.”
“There is a class of cases where non (tribal) members, if they commit a crime against a member, the only jurisdictional entity that can handle that case is the federal government. And those cases are not being prosecuted,” he said.
But Golden, in organizing the demonstration, said she believes events like the forum with primarily prosecutors as panelists were happening only because the state of Oklahoma is trying to keep its “power” from being taken away.
She briefly addressed the crowd in the forum to call for civility, but she maintained that the state should understand that the Supreme Court has affirmed tribal sovereignty.
“Tribes and the state are equals as far as the federal government is concerned,” Golden said. “We are a sovereign nation, and the same for our states. They (the states) don’t like that. The fact that now their power is getting taken away is why we are here today.”
Jacob Factor contributed to this story.