Political Matters – August 2020

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By Mordecai Specktor

Winning in Indian Country
In a departure from the usual “Political Matters” fare, this month’s column will feature good news. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic collapse, homeless camps in Minneapolis city parks, and skirmishes between racial justice protesters and the cops (and the GesTrumpo in Portland, Ore.), the Supreme Court of the United States decided that much of eastern Oklahoma (“Indian Territory” on old maps) still is a federally-recognized reservation.

And the Washington “R”-word NFL franchise dropped their offensive team name in the face of pressure from some major corporate sponsors.

All in all, amazing developments.

First, there was the July 9 SCOTUS decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, in which the justices, on a 5-4 vote, found that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation still retains sovereignty in eastern Oklahoma, including Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city.

The case was brought by Jimcy McGirt, who was convicted years ago in Oklahoma state court on three serious sex crimes. McGirt argued after his conviction that the state lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him because he’s an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. McGirt’s appeal, as per the opinion of the Supreme Court, rests on the federal Major Crimes Act (MCA), under which Indians are subject to federal trials for certain crimes committed within “the Indian country.”

“State courts generally have no jurisdiction to try Indians for crimes committed in ‘Indian country,’” according to the court decision.

National Public Radio, in its coverage of the SCOTUS decision, pointed out: “The ruling will affect lands of the Muscogee and four other Oklahoma tribes with identical treaties. Civil court issues are also affected.

“It’s important to note that the case concerned jurisdiction, not land ownership.”

The NPR story quoted Kevin Washburn, dean of the law school at the University of Iowa, where he teaches a course on federal Indian law. He served as assistant secretary of Indian affairs, from 2012 to 2016, and is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. He called the court’s ruling “a great decision.”

“For Indian people, their land is really important, and treaties are really important,” Washburn told NPR. “They’re sacred. And this reaffirms the sacredness of those promises and those treaties.”

He added, “Now and then there’s a great case that helps you keep the faith about the rule of law. And this is one of those.”

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation issued a statement on the court’s decision: “The Supreme Court today kept the United States’ sacred promise to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation. Today’s decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our established sovereignty and territorial boundaries. We will continue to work with federal and state law enforcement agencies to ensure that public safety will be maintained throughout the territorial boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.”

On the exploitation of Native names and symbols – the practice known as “cultural appropriation” – the July 13 decision by the Washington NFL franchise to change its name and logo came as a kind of thunderclap. The American Indian Movement (AIM) and mainstream Native organizations have been campaigning for such a change over many decades.

I’ve written numerous articles for The Circle about this demeaning behavior, the abuse of Indian rituals and symbols for America’s fun and games. Many years ago, I went to the Metrodome and interviewed Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins players about the issue. There has been significant movement in the prep and collegiate ranks, but the Washington decision represents the first time a major pro sports franchise has taken an enlightened step. Of course, the fact that the NFL franchise in the nation’s capital has employed a derogatory and racist epithet for its team was egregiously horrible.

Team owner Daniel Snyder had vowed that the “R”-word would endure forever; however, when FedEx, which won naming rights for the Washington football stadium, declared they would withdraw its sponsorship, the ground quickly shifted. Also, Nike, Amazon and other companies said they would no longer sell Washington-branded merchandise.

As someone said, money doesn’t talk – it screams. And Snyder bid a hasty retreat from the “R”-word.

The national social upheaval in the aftermath of the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis likely motivated the Washington decision. It will be interesting to see how other pro sports franchises react to the changed landscape vis-à-vis the raised profile of the movement for racial justice. So far, the Cleveland Indians (which ditched the Chief Wahoo logo last year) have announced that they will reconsider the team’s name.