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SCOTUS Decision Prompts Concerns about Tribal Sovereignty


Tuesday, July 5, 2022   

Tribal advocates are closely analyzing the potential impact of a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling dealing with state investigations of certain crimes on reservations. A common sentiment is that the protected rights of Native Americans are being chipped away.

The Supreme Court case stemmed from Oklahoma, about whether the state can prosecute non-Native Americans for crimes committed against an Indigenous person on tribal land. In a five-to-four decision, the court sided with the state.

Melody McCoy - staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund - said while it's a complex matter, it's a clear blow to tribal sovereignty.

"It's an unauthorized and unconsented intrusion," said McCoy, "of state authority within Indian country."

McCoy said how it affects future investigations depends on the motivations of each state. But she said the ball is now in hands of tribal governments, and whether they want to appeal to Congress.

South Dakota, which has nine federally recognized tribes, has optioned for at least some jurisdiction under a 1953 law that gave certain states power to prosecute crimes on tribal lands.

McCoy said in theory, adding more resources to an investigation isn't always a bad thing. But she noted that in these situations, there are culturally sensitive matters that tribal and federal authorities are often better equipped to handle.

"Not everything is cut and dry," said McCoy, "and you're dealing with vulnerable populations."

Other tribal advocates worry that state investigators might not carry out a thorough investigation if a non-Native comes to a reservation and commits a crime. They also worry about the court's interpretation expanding to other areas, such as environmental regulation.

In issuing its opinion, the court majority argued that a state has jurisdiction over all the areas within its borders.

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