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What Supreme Court's McGirt ruling means for Oklahoma's Native tribes


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: It was a momentous decision, a recent Supreme Court ruling much of Eastern Oklahoma remains Indian country, granting jurisdictional control for criminal justice cases to the Muscogee Creek Nation and four neighboring tribal nations.

Members of Congress and tribal leaders are in two days of virtual discussions to address issues facing Indian country today.

One topic of conversation, impact of McGirt v. Oklahoma, which, for Native Americans, goes well beyond the law.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Richinda Sands grew up in rural Oklahoma. As a girl, she worked as a pecan picker. To family members later in life, she was called Mamagee, Creek for Little Mother.

Last October, she died of complications from diabetes at age 73.

Jonodev Chaudhuri: She was the symbol of all the sacrifice that went into ensuring that my family has a tribal identity today.

Jeffrey Brown: Jonodev Chaudhuri is Richinda Sands nephew.

Jonodev Chaudhuri: When the decision of McGirt came out, she was the first person I thought of.

Jeffrey Brown: Chaudhuri is ambassador for the Muscogee Creek Nation, a diplomatic position representing the tribe's sovereign interests. He sees his Mamagee as his family's last matriarch, her life wrapped up in issues the Supreme Court spoke to.

Jonodev Chaudhuri: It was a life of struggle, and it's consistent with the struggle that all of our families as Muscogee Creek have faced.

And to have affirmation from the federal government's highest court that, despite our struggles, and because of the sacrifices of people who came before us, our nation remains whole and our reservation remains whole, it was a powerful moment that resonated with me on a very deep personal level.

Jeffrey Brown: That struggle and sacrifice trace back to what's known as the Trail of Tears, the 19th century forced removal of the Muscogee and other Indians from their ancestral lands in the Southeast to reservations in what would become Oklahoma.

Today's map still carries the clues. Tallahassee and Tulsa are variations on the same Creek word for old town.

Jonodev Chaudhuri: Our story is a story of difficulties, but rebirth and a continued chain.

Because of the ravages of time and unfortunate efforts by the state government and the federal government to dismantle this notion of home in our lands, it was an elusive concept, feeling at home in your nation's lands. And that's a feeling that many Creeks know and a lot of Native American folks know wherever the reservation or their territory is.

Jeffrey Brown: The McGirt decision, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, declared the lands remain within Indian reservations.

Its direct impact is on crimes committed by tribal members on the reservation, giving the tribe and the federal government jurisdiction, rather than the state.

Jonodev Chaudhuri: Not one inch of land, not one fistful of sand changed ownership by this ruling. Simply, it was a recognition that the Muscogee Creek Nation's boundaries had never been disestablished or destroyed.

But that's not what brought tears to so many of our eyes. There's a picture in my living room of my Mamagee and my mom and their siblings, my uncle Cliff, my aunt Aloween (ph) and my uncle Leon. They're there with my grandparents.

And each one of them had passed away in many ways due to the direct or indirect effects of removal, whether it be poverty or lack of resources to health care. My aunt was the first one to make it out of her 50s.

Jeffrey Brown: The COVID pandemic is hitting Native communities especially hard. The country is again focusing on its history of -- past and continuing history of racism.

Do those things play into your feelings too about the ruling and where things are now?

Jonodev Chaudhuri: Yes, absolutely.

The moment that we find ourselves, I think, is beyond just pure readings of the law. The case itself was a beautifully written, well-reasoned opinion, but it exists in a larger context. And that context shows that we have to fight to keep the gains made on a social justice level.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a context and history that include Richinda Sands.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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