The Supreme Court Holds The U.S. To A Promise

“On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise. Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever…Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”

Thus did Justice Neil Gorsuch begin and end his historic 42-page majority opinion this month in McGirt v. Oklahoma, as the Supreme Court ruled  in a 5-4 decision that the Creek reservation in eastern Oklahoma had never been “disestablished” by Congress, and thus the promise made in a series of 18th Century treaties ensured that the territory remains an Indian reservation for the purposes of federal criminal law, and quite probably in other areas as well.

The decision was overshadowed by more politically debated decisions this month, but it may be the most overtly ethical of the Supreme Court’s recent holdings. Among other virtues, it rejects the false logic of Rationalization #52. The Underwood Maneuver, or “That’s in the past.” That one holds that time erases accountability, an attitude  useful to the habitually unethical, because “moving on” gives them  an opportunity to repeat their unethical and harmful conduct, or worse.

The Underwood Maneuver manipulates the victim of wrongful conduct into forgiving and forgetting without the essential contributions a truly reformed wrongdoer must make to the equation: admission of harm , acceptance of responsibility, remorse and regret, amends and compensation, and good reason to believe that the unethical conduct won’t be repeated.  By emphasizing that wrongdoing was in the past, this rationalization all but assures that it is also lurking in the near future.

Potentially half of Oklahoma will be affected by McGirt. The issue was whether the state of Oklahoma could prosecute Indians accused of major crimes in Indian Country, or if, under an 1885 federal statute known as the Major Crimes Act, such offenses were within federal jurisdiction. The case hinged upon whether the Creek Reservation had been withdrawn or disestablished, by Congress in the lead-up to Oklahoma’s admission to the Union in 1907, thus causing Hugh Jackman to sing.

This is 3 million acres in and around Tulsa we’re talking about here.

With the Court holding that the Creek reservation was never disestablished, four other tribes— the Seminole, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations in eastern Oklahoma— may benefit from similar rulings. Those tribes’ total territory covers  19 million acres where 1.8 million Americans now live, relatively few of whom are Native Americans. Continue reading