The US Supreme Court ruled that about half of Oklahoma Indians belonged to a groundbreaking case in which child rape was also abolished.
The judges ruled 5-4 that an eastern part of the state, including its second largest city, Tulsa, should be recognized as part of a reserve.
Jimcy McGirt, who was convicted of raping a girl in 1997, brought the case forward.
He cited the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s historical claim to the land in which the attack took place.
What does the judgment mean?
Thursday’s decision in McGirt against Oklahoma is considered one of the most far-reaching cases for Indians before the highest US court in decades.
The ruling means that some tribe members found guilty of state crimes in the land in question can now challenge their beliefs.
Only federal prosecutors will be allowed to prosecute Indians accused of crimes in the region.
According to the Reuters news agency, tribal members living within borders may also be exempt from state taxes.
About 1.8 million people – about 15% of whom are Indians – live in the countryside that spans three million acres.
What did the judges say?
Judge Neil Gorsuch, a conservative appointed by US President Donald Trump, sided with the court’s four liberals and also wrote the statement.
He referred to the trail of tears, the violent relocation of Indians, including the Creek Nation, to Oklahoma in the 19th century.
The US government said at the time that the new country would belong to the tribes in the long run.
Justice Gorsuch wrote: “Today we are asked whether the country that these treaties have promised will remain an Indian reserve for the purposes of federal criminal law.
“Because Congress didn’t say otherwise, we are keeping the government at its word.”
What about the rape case?
McGirt’s sentence overturned. However, he could still be brought before a federal court.
McGirt, now 71, was convicted in 1997 in Waggoner County of raping a four-year-old girl.
He did not deny his guilt before the Supreme Court, but argued that only the federal authorities should be authorized to prosecute him.
McGirt is a member of the Seminole Nation.
His lawyer, Ian Heath Gershengorn, told CNBC: “The Supreme Court reiterated today that if the United States makes promises, the courts will keep those promises.”
How could the Oklahoma criminal justice system be affected?
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the decision would destabilize the state courts.
He wrote: “The state’s ability to prosecute serious crimes is compromised and decades of past convictions could be dismissed.
“Today’s decision creates considerable uncertainty for the continued authority of the state in all areas related to Indian affairs, from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law.”
An analysis by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections Atlantic Magazine found that at the end of last year 1,887 Native Americans were in prison for crimes within the borders of the tribal area.
However, according to the study, less than one in ten cases would qualify for a new federal trial.
Jonodev Chaudhuri, a former Supreme Court Justice of the Muscogee Nation, declined to speak of legal chaos.
He told the Tulsa World newspaper: “All the stories that fall from the sky were at best doubtful.
“This would only apply to a small group of Native Americans who commit crimes within borders.”
How did other tribal leaders react?
In a joint statement, the five tribes of Oklahoma – Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole and Muscogee Nation – welcomed the verdict.
They promised to work with federal and state authorities to agree on shared responsibility for the country.
“The nations and the state are committed to establishing a framework of common jurisdiction that safeguards sovereign interests and rights to self-government, while at the same time affirming the understanding, procedures, laws, and regulations of jurisdiction that affect public security, our economy, and the rights of the Support private property. ” Statement said.