The US Supreme Court ruled in a 5–4 decision on Thursday that the eastern half of Oklahoma is Native American land.
Justice Neil Gorsuch authored the majority opinion and was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer.
“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law,” Gorsuch wrote in the opinion. “Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
The large portion of land is home to 1.8 million people and encompasses around 19 million acres, including most of Tulsa.
The land has long been claimed by the Muskogee (Creek), Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole and Chickasaw Nations, despite broken treaties on behalf of the state of Oklahoma.
Congress passed a law in 1886 establishing a huge swath of eastern Oklahoma as Native territory, but the state reversed this treaty in 1906 through the passing of the Oklahoma Enabling Act.
While Thursday’s ruling reaffirms Congress’s initial decision, it also means that state prosecutors lack the authority to pursue criminal cases that occur on the now 18 million acres of native land. However, any future criminal cases can now be prosecuted by federal authorities.
“The federal government promised the [Muscogee (Creek) Nation] a reservation in perpetuity,” Gorsuch continued.
“As a result, many of the arguments before us today follow a sadly familiar pattern. Yes, promises were made, but the price of keeping them has become too great, so now we should just cast a blind eye. We reject that thinking.”