The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Our Muscogee people suffered for generations in the hope of a better tomorrow. It’s finally here.

The 1790 Treaty of the Muscogee (Creek) Nations and the United States on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
The 1790 Treaty of the Muscogee (Creek) Nations and the United States on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. (Kevin Wolf/National Museum of the American Indian/AP)
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Jonodev O. Chaudhuri is ambassador for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

This past October, I sat in a hospital and held my Mamagee’s hand as she took her final breath. Her death was painful, complicated by diabetes and systemic medical negligence. But she never complained. Like so many Muscogee women before her, Mamagee (which means “little mother”) laughed, smiled and prayed as she endured the legacies of federal policies designed to dismantle our Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Mamagee, my aunt, was our last living matriarch. With her death, we lost our family’s last fluent Muscogee speaker. And I lost an irreplaceable connection to who we are as Muscogee people.

I thought of her last Thursday. I screamed with joy when I read the first paragraph of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch’s majority opinion in McGirt v. Oklahoma. And I beamed with pride when I ran upstairs to tell my two boys that their reservation had not been destroyed. I thought of Mamagee, and I cried.

For generations, our people have persevered through insurmountable loss. Our ancestors survived the massacres committed by Andrew Jackson and the U.S. military. We survived the loss of our homelands and the Trail of Tears. My grandparents survived allotment in 1906, although we lost our family’s land as a result of deception and fraud. My mom and Mamagee’s generation survived violent boarding schools and federal policies designed to eradicate our Muscogee language.

Despite this barrage of tragedy, they always kept going in the hope that someday, we would win. They never gave up hope for a day when their children, or maybe their grandchildren, would finally be able to be who they truly are as a Muscogee people.

That day has finally come. In McGirt, the court declined Oklahoma’s request to disestablish our Creek Nation Reservation. Writing for the majority, Gorsuch held that once a reservation is created by a treaty, it can be disestablished only by an act of Congress — not a court and certainly not a state. And if Congress is to do so, they must show their face to the world when they do it.

The ruling recognizes what we have always been: a sovereign nation with a sovereign territory. This does not mean — as alarmists have misleadingly portrayed — that Oklahoma cannot prosecute crimes on the Creek Nation Reservation. Under federal law, Oklahoma maintains criminal jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrated crimes committed everywhere in the state, including on our reservation. Indians will be prosecuted by the federal government, Creek Nation’s government or both. We will continue to work under the cooperative agreements we already had in place to ensure that federal, state and other tribal law enforcement remain cross-deputized and capable of responding to crimes within our borders.

And contrary to hyperbolic statements made in the media and at oral argument, the court’s decision will not affect the status of individual land ownership within our borders. Not one inch of land has changed hands, nor will it — unless an owner elects to sell his or her land.

Truly, nothing in the Supreme Court’s decision constitutes a seismic shift in the jurisdictional scheme that already existed. What, then, you may ask, is the big deal here?

When I was little, Mamagee and my mom used to take me to Tulsa, where we would eat at the restaurant Coney I-lander. And it was there — enjoying the best chili cheese dogs humankind can make — that my mom would explain that “Tulsa” comes from our word “Tulasi,” meaning “Old Town.” And Mamagee would explain that at the end of the Trail of Tears, Tulasi is where we deposited the ash that we carried from our ceremonial fires from our homelands in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you Tulsa isn’t your home,” Mamagee would say.

“You’re Muscogee,” my mom would add with pride. “We are still here.”

For my Mamagee and my mom, home has always been a place of systemic erasure. But they never gave up. Mom always took me to visit the lands an hour south of Tulsa that contained the burned remnants of her childhood home and her buried umbilical cord — a connection to our land that no federal law or policy can ever dismantle. Mamagee sang our cherished Muscogee hymns to me her entire life, and on her final day, I sang these hymns to her, at her bedside. Like the generations before them, Mamagee and my mom persevered with the steadfast hope that their children or their grandchildren would someday be recognized as Muscogee in their home.

For me and for thousands of other Muscogees, the court’s ruling is more than legal confirmation of a treaty. It is confirmation that the sacrifices of my mom, my Mamagee and all of our ancestors were not in vain. That my children won’t be erased in their own home. That we are still here.

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