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Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has a warning for the Indigenous sovereign Nations across the state: do not create safe havens for women’s rights. The governor, who recently signed some of the strictest abortion restrictions in the country, is looking into the possibility that the Tribes could circumvent his law.

Sovereign land, upon which most of Oklahoma sits, means the Tribal Nations have jurisdiction over the actions of citizens on that land. As land treaties hold the rights of American Indians over their rightful places, the Tribes are not necessarily beholden to Oklahoma law.

This means that Tribal lands could potentially provide access to women’s reproductive rights over the objections of the Governor of Oklahoma. The Nations could provide a safe haven for women seeking abortion. 

Freedmen descendants ignored as Stitt battles Tribes on abortion rights

However, the Tribes also have their share of issues, including addressing descendants of Freedmen,  Black people who were once enslaved by the Five Tribes (Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole) prior to the end of the U.S. Civil War.

When emancipation was accorded to enslaved people, many of the Freedman were incorporated into the Tribes, although they were not granted the same rights as Tribal citizens. 

The descendants of Freedman have fought for years for their rights. In 2017, a court ruling held that Freedman had the same rights as all other tribal citizens; in 2021 the Cherokee Nation removed the phrase “by blood” from their constitution. 

Meanwhile, those rights are still a point of contention for several of the Tribes. Buzzfeed news reported that several Freedman were denied their Covid-19 vaccine from Indian Health, and some Tribes still do not provide Freedman the right to vote on Tribal issues. 

Okla. Governor Stitt attacks Tribal sovereignty on Fox News

But the Nations could come together on rights for women. And for Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, anyone who refuses to subjugate the rights of women is a threat. 

In an interview, Governor Stitt lambasted Tribal politics. “You know, the tribes in Oklahoma are super liberal,” he said. “They go to Washington, D.C. They talk to President [Joe] Biden at the White House; they kind of adopt those strategies.” 

Continued Stitt, “So yeah, we think that there’s a possibility that some tribes may try to set up abortion on demand. They think that you can be 1/1,000th tribal member and not have to follow the state law. And so that’s something that we’re watching.”

Tribal sovereignty means the Nations have the right to create and enforce their own laws, that need not necessarily align with laws in the United States. 

Abortion is one such issue. With the Supreme Court’s final decision on abortion rights looming, a leaked memo put the rights of all women in danger. 

The Tribes now have an opportunity to support women on their lands. Oklahoma women – along with women from across the United States – can only hope that the Tribes will support them.

Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...