Quapaw Nation calls ruling an affront

Chairman Joseph Byrd

The Quapaw Nation late Wednesday evening responded to the Supreme Court of the United State’s ruling in Oklahoma v. Castro Huerta. The case presented a jurisdictional question about whether the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute certain major crimes in Indian Country or whether the federal government and the state of Oklahoma have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute those crimes.

“Today, the United States Supreme Court rendered a decision that is an affront on tribal sovereignty and erodes centuries of well-settled federal Indian Law. By inserting itself into an area reserved specifically for Congress, SCOTUS signals that plenary power is no longer absolute when it comes to Indian affairs,” Chairman Byrd said.

In a 5-4 ruling delivered by Justice Brett Kavanaugh and joined by Roberts, Thomas, Alito and Barrett, the high court dramatically expanded states’ ability to prosecute crimes on Indian land. The Court’s majority opinion stated, “The Federal Government and the State have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country.” 

The ruling is a reversal of the precedent set in the landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling only two years ago, which cited more than 120 years of federal law granting federal courts “exclusive jurisdiction” to try “all criminal causes for the punishment of any offense.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who authored the majority opinion in McGirt v. Oklahoma, led a scathing dissent in Castro v. Huerta. Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan joined him. He dissented, in part, by saying:

“This Court has no business usurping congressional decisions about the appropriate balance between federal, tribal, and state interests. If the Court’s ruling today sounds like a legislative committee report touting the benefits of some newly proposed bill, that’s because it is exactly that. And given that a nine-member court is a poor substitute for the people’s elected representatives, it is no surprise that the Court’s cost-benefit analysis is radically incomplete. The Court’s decision is not a judicial interpretation of the law’s meaning; it is the pastiche of a legislative process.”

Quapaw Nation Business Committee Chairman Joseph Tali Byrd joined Gorsuch’s scathing review of the majority opinion. Byrd graduated from the University of New Mexico School of Law and earned a Masters of Jurisprudence in Indian Law from the University of Tulsa College of Law. He served as a law clerk at the Department of Justice in Washington D.C. and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of New Mexico.

“The Quapaw Nation remains steadfast and committed to ensuring public safety for all citizens within our reservation and will continue to work with the state of Oklahoma in a concurrent jurisdiction framework,” Byrd said.

Tulsa District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said, “This was a Tulsa County jury who decided the fate of Mr. Castro-Huerta (an illegal alien) who horribly neglected an Indian child and had the audacity to seek protection behind the McGirt precedent.

“Public safety is our foremost responsibility. Our focus is protecting our community and bringing justice to victims. We will resume what we have always done since 1907 – hold offenders accountable when we can for their wrongful conduct while coordinating our efforts with our Federal and Tribal partners,” Kunzweiler told Tulsa Today in an exclusive interview.

Chairman Byrd currently serves as the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Eastern Oklahoma liaison to the Biden administration on the Tribal Nations Leadership Council (TNLC). The TNLC confers with the Attorney General’s Department of Justice on expanded criminal jurisdiction, taxation, tribal sovereignty and more. The BIA’s Eastern Oklahoma Region includes nearly 20 tribes and all six tribes – Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Quapaw – whose reservations were reaffirmed under McGirt and other similar cases since 2020. Chairman Byrd is from Tahlequah. He is a descendant of Chief Victor Griffin, the last chief of the Quapaw. He is buffalo clan and has deep roots with the Quapaw community. 

The Quapaw Nation is the gateway to Indian Territory. Based in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, it borders Kansas and Missouri and is a stone’s throw from Arkansas. It’s also the first tribal area visitors encounter as they enter Oklahoma driving west on Interstate-44.

The Quapaw Nation is a federally recognized tribe of approximately 5,600 citizens based in Quapaw, Okla. The O-Gah-Pah, or “Downstream” people. The tribe serves its people with health care, housing, educational scholarships, and cultural activities. It operates Downstream Casino Resort in Oklahoma on Interstate 44, just four miles south of Joplin, Quapaw Casino in Quapaw, Oklahoma and Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff Arkansas, the tribe’s ancestral homelands. The Quapaw Nation also operates a variety of other business ventures outside of gaming. To learn more, visit QuapawTribe.com.

To read the opinion in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, click here. To read the Attorney General’s brief, click here or to read the syllabus prepared by SCOTUS Reporter of Decisions, click here.

To read statements from Attorney General John O’Connor and Tulsa County DA Steve Kunzweiler click here as published on Tulsa Today earlier Wednesday.

To read statements from United States Attorneys Christopher J. Wilson, Clinton J. Johnson, and Robert J. Troester click here as published on Tulsa Today earlier Wednesday.

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