U.S. Attorney General William Barr paid a visit to Cherokee Nation Wednesday for a roundtable discussion on how the United States and Native American tribes can strengthen their partnerships going forward. He also announced the allocation of federal dollars to help reinforce federal and tribal court systems in the wake of the McGirt vs. Oklahoma ruling.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in July that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation was never disestablished, and by extension due to a similar history and treaties, neither has that of all of the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole Nations. As a result, defendants throughout the tribes’ reservations who have been charged with crimes in state courts are asking to be retried in federal or tribal court.
“Many state law enforcement offices are familiarizing themselves with tribal reservation boundaries for the first time and learning about jurisdictional rules that operate in Indian Country,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “Decisions in many such cases will likely be made by state courts before the end of the year.”
CN is looking to expand its court system, as well as its Marshal Service and CN Attorney General Sara Hill’s office. Hill is currently coordinating with state and federal prosecutors to track hundreds of cases that may eventually be brought to federal and tribal court.
“The Cherokee Nation will work tirelessly to ensure that those who commit crimes on our reservation are apprehended, and to ensure that these criminals are prosecuted for their crimes,” said Hoskin.
According to Barr, he has long intended to visit the tribe, but the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with his travel plans for six months. He said the Cherokee Nation is the “most successful example of the promise of sovereignty and self determination, and also a tribal government that is recognized for their commitment to law enforcement and the rule of law.”
“I know McGirt is on everyone’s mind in Washington, (D.C),” said Barr. “The Department of the Justice is working closely with the Oklahoma delegation to try to come up with a legislative approach that is supported by all sides.”
The current problem facing tribal and federal prosecutors is a question of resources. The office of U.S. Attorney Trent Shores for the Northern District of Oklahoma, who was in attendance Wednesday, has prosecuted 114 cases since only August. A typical full year of cases for his office is around 130 cases.
Barr announced that $2 million in federal funding would be allocated for a Special Assistant United States Attorney program.
“The department will provide funds to hire two prosecutors for the Eastern District and two prosecutors for the Northern District, from tribal prosecutors who will then be cross-designated so those prosecutors can handle cases both in tribal courts and in federal courts,” said Barr.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order last year to create a task force charged with developing a government-wide response to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous persons. In June, Patti Buhl was tapped as the coordinator for Oklahoma’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Task Force. Barr said Buhl will be coordinating with all of the U.S. attorneys offices in Oklahoma on that project, and, in the next several weeks, she and others will begin developing action plans and protocols for responding to such cases.
Barr also announced more that $296 million will go to tribal grants to improve public safety, serve victims of crimes, support law enforcement, and support youth programs for Native communities throughout the country.
“This funding will be almost $40 million allocated to Oklahoma, and over $7.6 million directly to the Cherokee Nation, and will provide critical support to law enforcement and important funding for victims service providers,” said Barr.