Redefining Oklahoma

September 2nd, 2020

Of all the questions 2020 has forced us to ask, one of the most unlikely might be “Is all of Oklahoma part of Oklahoma?” A July decision by the United States Supreme Court raised this conundrum as it dealt with questions concerning the continuing validity of certain treaties between Native American tribes and the United States government. While the scope of the final decision was narrow, it is another strand of an ongoing trend in American society forcing us to reckon with past injustices. 

At the most basic level, McGirt v. Oklahoma dealt with the criminal conviction of Jimcy McGirt, a Seminole man found guilty of sex crimes in Eastern Oklahoma. The criminal acts were never in much dispute, but McGirt’s lawyers claimed their client could not be prosecuted by the State of Oklahoma. According to the terms of a treaty signed in 1832, the land on which his crime was committed was under the domain of the Creek Nation because the treaty in question was never officially dissolved when the state of Oklahoma was created in 1907. In a 5–4 ruling which cut across traditional ideological lines, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of this interpretation. 

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion which held that Oklahoma had no jurisdiction to prosecute McGirt, or any other accused criminals in a case involving tribal members, in the lands that constitute the Indian Territories. Under the Major Crimes Act, those cases should be prosecuted in federal courts. The immediate effect of the ruling is that a number of cases will be reviewed including in Tulsa, the largest city in the region, necessitating an increase in the number of federal prosecutors. 

Promises made and the trail of tears 

On a more philosophical level, the McGirt case raises questions about the nature of promises made by the United States government. The relationship between Native American tribes and the government has been littered with broken promises since settlers moved into lands previously occupied by the tribes. In the case of the Creek Nation, their 1832 treaty with the U.S. government was part of the larger Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the federal government to remove tribes from the Southern states and territories. 

The Creeks, along with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole peoples (collectively known as the Five Civilized Tribes), were relocated to Oklahoma in exchange for the promise that “Creek country west of the Mississippi shall be solemnly guarantied.” Creeks were among the estimated 60,000 people who traveled the Trail of Tears to the new territory, during which more than 4,000 Native Americans died from exposure, disease and starvation. 

Justice Gorsuch noted in his opinion that, unlike other treaties which Congress officially abrogated, no such action was taken in this case. In effect, the lands never ceased to be “Indian lands,” despite the fact that the new state of Oklahoma has controlled them for more than 100 years. Gorsuch concluded his remarks by saying, “Today, we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.” 

Josiah’s reform: Another old text with contemporary application 

The Book of 2 Kings includes a remarkable story about reckoning with old promises. In chapters 22 and 23, we find the story of a law book discovered in the Temple by the high priest Hilkiah. Because of its content, most biblical scholars believe it was the Book of Deuteronomy, which records the covenant between God and Israel at the time of Moses. When King Josiah hears the words of the book, he rends his clothes in a sign of grief because he realizes the nation was not living according to the covenant. His concern is amplified when the prophetess Huldah comes before him and confirms that God is dismayed at the disobedience of the people. 

The king responds by calling all the people together to hear the words of the book read aloud. Together, Josiah and the people renew the covenant before God and begin to reform the religious practices of the nation. They tear down old shrines made to other gods and revive the practice of celebrating the Passover feast, which reminded them of God’s actions in delivering the people from Egypt. Josiah’s role in this reform marks him as one of the few post-Davidic kings to leave a positive legacy. He used the discovery of the old text as an opportunity to call the nation back to the values and commitments of its founding era.


In recent weeks, there has been no shortage of opportunities to reckon with the past. The social conflicts we sometimes call “the culture wars” turn, in part, on views of how to assess the past. Were our ancestors’ actions part of aspirations toward higher values that sometimes included horrific abuses? Or, did the injustices of the past shape the nation in such fundamental ways that they are part of our origin story as well? 

Recent controversies over racial inequalities, Confederate monuments and symbols, and athletes kneeling during the national anthem have all touched on how we view our common story as Americans. They push us to ask how well we are living up to what we profess to believe. When we don’t live up to our promises, as in the treaties made with Native American tribes, how do we recognize the breach and make restitution? 

The final form of the Scriptures is itself a testimony to the ways we reckon with our broken history. The Bible preserves not only the moments when human characters were faithful but also when they failed horribly. The complex portrait of King David, in which he is capable of both great piety and murderous intent, is one of the starkest examples. Similarly, Israel’s relationship with God is marked by both fidelity and betrayal. The Israelites are called back over and over again to the words of God and the work of Jesus to renew their journey.

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