An Oklahoma news collaborative will show how the landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma decision will affect both tribal and non-Indigenous residents in the state.
The Oklahoma Media Center recently selected the name “Promised Land: A Supreme Court decision places Oklahoma at a crossroads” for a shared topic in 2021. The collaborative will cover the affirmation of tribal sovereignty after the Supreme Court ruling last year.
“On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the July 9, 2020, court decision. “ … 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.”
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt called the ruling the most pressing issue for Oklahoma’s future in his Feb. 1 State of the State address,
“Every Oklahoman needs to know what the heck the McGirt ruling did, and how it will change our lives. Every one,” said Mike Sherman, executive editor of Oklahoma Watch, an in-depth and investigative journalism nonprofit. “This is an incredibly important topic that nobody really understands. I think this is the kind of topic that OMC was founded for.”
OMC is a collaborative of print, digital, and broadcast newsrooms working cooperatively to cover pressing issues facing the public. Its mission is to support and strengthen Oklahoma’s local journalism ecosystem and spur innovation through statewide collaboration that benefits diverse audiences.
In February, media partners in the news collective unanimously agreed to start collaborating on the comprehensive topic. They decided ramifications of the SCOTUS ruling was the best subject for OMC to pursue that isn’t already being investigated extensively.
“The topic is just too big for a small newsroom like ours to unpeel all the layers of that onion,” said Dee Ann Patterson, managing editor of The Lawton Constitution. “So we would be very interested in helping with McGirt, but we need resources to help explain what all that ruling means because it’s just such a huge topic.”
Dylan Goforth, editor of The Frontier nonprofit based in Tulsa, had one suggestion.
“It might be important to think about it also in terms of not just how does the McGirt ruling affect non-Native American Oklahomans, but how does it also affect Native American Oklahomans,” Goforth said. “A lot of the coverage is based on like, ‘Hey, white people, here is how McGirt affects you.’ But it’s more complicated than that, and there are more people affected by it.”
Ryan Welton, digital content director at Griffin Communications (which owns News 9 in Oklahoma City and News on 6 in Tulsa), said it is incumbent upon the OMC to provide partners with the resources to do that.
“One of the things that turned me off from the possibility of doing this is that we want quality. We also want quantity,” Welton said. “And these will take longer to do. And so we’re going to need to be coached about what this is about.
“We’re going to become subject matter experts on the topic, and we’ll need help along the way.”
On March 12, OMC media partners attended a presentation and Q&A session on covering tribal media. Cherokee National tribal member Graham Lee Brewer, Indigenous affairs editor at KOSU and associate editor for Indigenous affairs at High Country News, gave the Zoom presentation.
Brewer, a contributor for The New York Times, also is a board member of the Native American Journalists Association, which is based on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman.
NAJA and OMC plan to host an event to engage both Oklahoma and tribal journalists to better cover the complicated issue statewide.
“We hope to talk through big questions and break down the silos between traditional Oklahoma media and tribal media,” said Rob Collins, OMC project manager. “We can engage with questions of what we’re working through as we cover the far-reaching ramifications of this court decision. NAJA can be a continued partner to improve coverage of Indigenous communities across Oklahoma.”
According to a NAJA reporting guide, the U.S. Supreme Court cases McGirt v. Oklahoma and Sharp v. Murphy presented questions about criminal jurisdiction over Indians in parts of Eastern Oklahoma. Both asked the court to determine if the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s historic boundaries in Oklahoma currently constitute an “Indian reservation.”
NAJA is suggesting the formation of Native American advisory board of Indigenous stakeholders. This would serve as a sounding board for guidance as OMC continues to share content now that the “Promised Land” name is selected.
“I think it incorporates the language of law, it respects historical contexts, and in a broad sense, I believe it’s something any American can understand,” Angel Ellis, director of Mvskoke Media, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation tribally funded news organization, said of the series name. “Settlers looking for a better life and means to provide and Indigenous people who have had close ties to land stewardship for centuries can all identify with ‘Promised Land.’”
In its inaugural year in 2020, OMC received a $50,000 Walton Family Foundation grant to cover COVID-19’s effects on K-12 education.