TN Native American Lands & SCOTUS
Updated: Apr 15
The US Supreme Court has recently ruled about half of Oklahoma belongs to Native Americans.
President Trump’s recent SCOTUS appointment provided the presumptive swing vote for a 5-4 decision recognizing a significant portion of eastern Oklahoma, including its second-biggest city, Tulsa, should be recognized as part of a tribal reservation. What does it mean in the short term? Only federal prosecutors will have the power to criminally prosecute Native Americans accused of crimes in the area.
Tribal members who live within the boundaries are likely to be exempt from state income, sales and property taxes, according to multiple news agencies. Of course, those limitations are expected to greatly change through enhancements in the coming years.
The larger argument coming down the road will be the 22 million acres that were once the territory of Flathead Indians - as they were called by the European immigrants. Under the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, the Flathead tribes ceded over 20 million acres to the federal government and were left with a 1.3 million-acre reservation. Then in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt created the National Bison Refuge out of grazing land purchased from the CSKT for $807,000 (today’s dollars).
Let’s bring the focus specifically onto the Tennessee region for a review. In the coming weeks and months, the story will gain traction. And with 12 historical treaties in dispute, it’s nearly an unavoidable courtroom showdown. Even our name “Tennessee” is tied to Native Americans calling this region “Tanasi”. The prominent early Indian tribes in Tennessee were the Cherokee and the Chickasaw. The Chickasaws claimed most of western Tennessee as their hunting grounds. The Cherokees claimed southeastern Tennessee and northeast Georgia as their homeland.
From the Native American standpoint, their perspective will center on The Trail of Tears case. The most common Tennessee portion of the land dispute began with the Treaty of Lochaber which was signed in 1770 and relinquished lands in northeast Tennessee to British representatives establishing settlements. The first Tennessee treaty actually preceded 1770 by 7 years. That treat was the Proclamation of 1763 which reserved all of Tennessee for the Indian tribes. That timeline reflects 65 years from complete ownership of Tennessee lands to removal due to 12 broken treaties - with the Trail of Tears starting in the early 1830s.
It’s a technical argument that wouldn’t stand on face value with consideration to how the world’s nations have risen and fallen throughout history. But, our recent SCOTUS ruling has put the accepted rule of history on hold.
The next several years will be interesting times for Tennessee and the Native Americans calling the Volunteer State home.