- By Rob Collins
Guest Opinion: Soon after the Oklahoma Media Center (OMC) formed in 2020, the statewide news collaborative knew the Supreme Court tribal sovereignty case McGirt v. Oklahoma was an incredibly important topic. OMC collaborators were aware that nobody understood all the nuances of the evolving subject and also realized the landmark ruling had groundbreaking ramifications. Our participating news orgs thought they could cover the broad subject more comprehensively by aligning resources.
OMC's mission is to support and strengthen Oklahoma’s local journalism ecosystem and spur innovation through statewide collaboration that benefits diverse audiences.
For its 2021 story-sharing subject, OMC collaborators last spring unanimously chose to cover what is considered the biggest Native American court ruling in more than a century. Our nonpartisan, Oklahoma-based collaborative is working to accurately inform all citizens of Oklahoma on this complicated and sensitive issue with significant legal, public safety, and financial ramifications.
This collaboration, called Promised Land, represents something historic. I’ve been a professional journalist for almost three decades, and I can’t think of a time where we’ve collaborated with Indigenous tribal media in such a way in Oklahoma.
Our state is home to 39 federally recognized tribes. Only three tribal media entities — all OMC collaborators — are truly independent and know the value of a watchdog press, while other Oklahoma tribes are less transparent.
Throughout Promised Land, OMC has partnered with the Oklahoma-based Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) to provide ethics and best-practices training on covering Indigenous issues.
Graham Lee Brewer, NAJA vice president and NBC News national reporter, did initial OMC training, introducing the tribal media landscape. Sterling Cosper, NAJA membership manager, provided an OMC training with Mvskoke Media Director Angel Ellis on historical context of the tribal sovereignty case. Cosper then joined Allison Herrera, KOSU’s Indigenous affairs reporter, and Liz Gray, Mvskoke Media managing editor, for a “Check Your Bias” OMC training, to avoid cliched Indigenous storytelling.
In 2022, OMC hopes to continue its partnership with NAJA through a comprehensive content analysis to specifically measure the impact of the Promised Land project.
Besides listening to Indigenous stakeholders, Ryan Leonard, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s special counsel for Native American affairs, provided the state’s perspective during an on-the-record session with our media collaborators.
Since embarking on the Promised Land project last March, OMC collaborators have shared 367 news stories and counting. Some highlights include:
- “Here’s how Cherokee Tribal courts are handling the surge in cases due to the McGirt ruling,” by Curtis Killman, Tulsa World: This article observed the Cherokee Nation’s justice system in a story redistributed by the Cherokee Phoenix tribal publication.
- “Federal notice on surface coal mining a ‘significant loss of power by Oklahoma’,” by Joe Tomlinson, NonDoc: This article explained how, since the ruling, the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and Oklahoma Department of Mines had only enforcement authority and authorization to conduct “routine” regulatory activities over active and abandoned coal mines within the Muscogee Nation. When attorneys for the U.S. Department of the Interior and the state of Oklahoma recently appeared before a U.S. district judge regarding the jurisdiction of surface mining regulation in eastern Oklahoma, OMC provided a transcript for its media collaborators as a future reporting resource.
- “When police shoot tribal citizens on Muscogee Nation land, families ask ‘who’s held accountable?’,” a collaborative partnership between The Frontier and KOSU. Allison Herrera’s KOSU report showed how some families of Indigenous people shot by police have trouble getting information. This story was updated one year after the deadly police encounter.
- “Oklahoma court: McGirt ruling should not be applied retroactively to criminal cases,” a breaking news report by K. Querry-Thompson, KFOR. This article explained how the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued a ruling that the McGirt decision should stand but be applied only to criminal cases moving forward.
- The Frontier recently launched an interactive McGirt v Oklahoma website with support from the 2021 OMC Innovation Fund to explain the complex case that included a chronological timeline built by a data journalist funded by the Kirkpatrick Foundation.
- “Gov. Kevin Stitt, tribal leaders not meeting as McGirt rhetoric hits boiling point,” reported by Carmen Forman and Molly Young for The Oklahoman. Calling this ruling the “most pressing” issue facing Oklahoma, Stitt wants the McGirt decision overturned. The Oklahoma governor has said the decision created “chaos” and set “murderers and criminals” free. Meanwhile, tribal leaders described Stitt’s comments as being divisive, sensational and misleading.
The Oklahoman reported Stitt and Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Muscogee (Creek) nation tribal leaders haven’t met in person since February. The governor also hasn’t met with leaders of the Quapaw Nation, the latest tribe to be covered by the SCOTUS ruling.
“Because we are all Oklahomans, whether we have Native blood or not, it’s best for all of us to sit down and try to resolve things together because acrimony and fighting achieves nothing,” former Gov. Frank Keating told The Oklahoman.
Robert L. Miller, the Arizona State University law professor and citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, also spoke to OMC about his forthcoming McGirt book to be published by the University of Oklahoma Press. Assuming SCOTUS doesn’t reverse the case — and if Congress doesn’t pass a bill to change the McGirt ruling — Miller told OMC’s collaborating journalists that “you and I will be writing about McGirt 30 years from now.”
We’re not sure when the McGirt v Oklahoma case will stop being relevant. As long as questions arise from ongoing litigation and coming court decisions, OMC collaborators will continue to report the latest developments through Promised Land.
Longtime journalist Rob Collins is project manager of the Oklahoma Media Center, which is working with the Local Media Association as it transitions to 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
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