Half of Oklahoma Still Native American Land, SCOTUS Rules

american indian treaty still honorable after oklahoman statehood

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Nearly half of Oklahoma is Native American land, which will affect past and future civil and criminal law cases, NPR reported. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 that Creek reservation treaties should still be honored after Oklahoma became a state. The Trail of Tears ended in the same area.

Native American feathers on dark background
In 1835, the Treaty of New Echota was an agreement between the Cherokee Nation and the U.S. Government, in which the Cherokee would relinquish their claims to lands in the east in exchange for land in present-day northeastern Oklahoma. Photo By Leon de Zeus / Shutterstock

According to NPR, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision earlier this month. “The Supreme Court ruled that about half of the land in Oklahoma is within a Native American reservation, a decision that will have major consequences for both past and future criminal and civil cases,” the article said. “The court’s decision hinged on the question of whether the Creek reservation continued to exist after Oklahoma became a state. Much of Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city, is located on Muskogee (Creek) land.”

The entire area of northeastern Oklahoma is the original destination of what the Cherokee referred to as “The Trail Where They Cried,” better known as The Trail of Tears.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830

Throughout the early 1800s, the American government increasingly spread south and west, claiming absolute underlying title over “discovered land,” which included American Indian territory. However, the land wasn’t enough. A growing chorus of voices called for the removal of the American Indians permanently, including President Andrew Jackson.

“As president, Jackson couched his support for forced removal in altruistic terms, suggesting that the Indian Territory would afford Indians protection from unscrupulous whites,” said Dr. Daniel M. Cobb, Associate Professor of American Studies at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Living in what he called peace and solitude would further enable tribes to abandon their wandering state and embrace civilization. This expression, of course, refers to the racist theorizing of the time about Indians and their so-called ‘primitive’ stage of cultural development, and it was meant to undermine Cherokee assertions of nationhood.”

Dr. Cobb said that Congress enacted The Indian Removal Act of 1830, which allowed for the removal of all Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River. Despite winning several court battles, Cherokee Indians watched as Georgia proceeded with a land lottery that granted Cherokee lands to non-Indians without tribal consent.

The Treaty of New Echota

“In December 1835, the pro-removal faction [of American Indians], without the consent of the National Council, negotiated the Treaty of New Echota,” Dr. Cobb said. “Through the Treaty of New Echota, the Cherokee relinquished their claims to lands in the east in exchange for a new homeland in present-day northeastern Oklahoma. In addition, they received $5 million as well as the promise of transportation to the west, and assistance from the United States government for one year after removal.

“They had two years to prepare.”

By the time the two years had passed, Principal Chief John Ross managed to hand-deliver to Congress a petition against removal. It had been signed by 16,000 people. It fell on deaf ears, as did earlier attempts to demand the U.S. Senate to refuse to ratify the treaty.

“In May 1838, soldiers arrived and drove Cherokees in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina to stockades where untold numbers died,” Dr. Cobb said. “In June a small detachment departed for the west only to suffer tremendously in the hot, dry summer. In response to the overwhelming hardship and tragedy, John Ross belatedly convinced the federal government to allow the Cherokee to oversee the rest of their removal.”

According to Dr. Cobb, 13 other detachments that left the south that fall and winter fared no better, with somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 Cherokees losing their lives on the way to Oklahoma, including Ross’s wife. Several people responsible for the Treaty of New Echota were executed under Cherokee law, leading to a civil war that lasted until 1846.

“Only then, nearly 10 years after their exodus, could Cherokees really begin the arduous task of rebuilding their nation—a nation that, against all odds, endured.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Daniel Cobb contributed to this article.

Dr. Daniel Cobb contributed to this article. Dr. Cobb is an Associate Professor of American Studies at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He achieved a BA in History with a Sociology minor from Messiah College, where he graduated cum laude; a MA in History from the University of Wyoming; and a PhD in History from the University of Oklahoma.