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Quapaw Nation Reservation rightfully affirmed in a unanimous decision by Oklahoma’s highest court

OKLAHOMA CITY – In a 4-0 decision today, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the Quapaw Nation reservation has never been disestablished by Congress and has existed without Congressional abrogation since 1833. The decision by the OCCA follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma decision affirming the Muscogee Creek Nation’s Reservation status as Indian Country under federal law. This is the first Tribal Reservation in Oklahoma, outside of the Five Tribes, to be affirmed using the McGirt application.

The Oklahoma Judicial Center where the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals resides (Photo courtesy of The Oklahoman Archives).

OCCA Presiding Judge Scott Rowland wrote in his opinion:


"Nothing in any of the documents showed a congressional intent to erase the boundaries of the Reservation and terminate its existence. Congress, and Congress alone, has the power to abrogate those treaties, and this Court [will not] lightly infer such a breach once Congress has established a reservation."


The Quapaw Nation Reservation, and the idea that it was ever disestablished, was being considered by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in the case of Oklahoma v. Lawhorn. Jeremy Lawnhorn was a 38-year-old Cherokee Nation citizen in August 2020 when he was charged with committing a felony in Ottawa County on the Quapaw Nation Reservation. Lawhorn's attorneys argued Lawhorn should rightfully be tried in federal court under the Major Crimes Act, like other Native Americans on reservations across Indian Country. Native Americans who commit felonies on reservations have been tried in federal court under the Major Crimes Act since 1885.


"The Lawhorn decision rightfully affirms what we have always known – The Quapaw Nation is Indian Country. Our reservation still exists, and our sovereign rights are what we have always known them to be," said Quapaw Nation Chairman Joseph Tali Byrd. "The Quapaw Nation has proactively taken the necessary steps to address public safety within our jurisdictional boundaries by upgrading our court system and providing increased support to the Quapaw Nation Marshals and local law enforcement. Although the resolution of this matter took time, we are pleased the court arrived at the correct decision and are eager to work with federal and state and our tribal neighbors to implement positive changes to our criminal justice system."


Presiding Judge Rowland also wrote:


"The District Attorney informed the district court that he and the Attorney General's Office conducted 'extensive research' and found no evidence that Congress disestablished the Quapaw Nation Reservation. Noting that the State of Oklahoma presented no evidence to show Congress erased or disestablished the boundaries of the Quapaw Reservation, and citing McGirt, the district court concluded that the Quapaw Nation Reservation remains in existence and is Indian Country and that the State had no jurisdiction in this matter. This finding is supported by the record and we adopt it.


For these reasons, we hold, for purposes of federal criminal law, the land upon which the parties agree Lawhorn allegedly committed this crime is within the Quapaw Nation Reservation and is Indian Country. The ruling in McGirt governs this case and requires us to find the State of Oklahoma is without jurisdiction to prosecute Lawhorn.


The ruling of the district court dismissing the case against Lawhorn based upon lack of jurisdiction is AFFIRMED."


For the last two years, the Quapaw Nation has been significantly upgrading its criminal justice system. In November 2019, the tribe opened the four million dollar Ki-Ho-Ta Justice Center. It serves Quapaw Nation tribal citizens and business entities in civil and criminal matters. In addition to a new courtroom, the facility offers a wide variety of counseling services, DUI classes, drug and alcohol assessments, and a methadone clinic and juvenile court.


The Quapaw Nation Court Clerk has already begun working with the Ottawa County District Attorney’s Office and the United States Attorney in the Northern District of Oklahoma to move cases to tribal and federal court.


"The Quapaw Nation is ready for this," said Quapaw Nation Vice-Chairwoman Callie Bowden. "We already have some cross-jurisdictional agreements in place with various law enforcement agencies across our reservation. We opened a new criminal justice center only two years ago, and we are overhauling our courts. The Quapaw Nation's primary goal is, and always will be, to protect our tribal members and be valuable partners to the entire community."


*This post has been edited with relevant information being added.

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