Indigenous activists sentence to death after Julius Jones clemency
MCALESTER, Okla. – The sound of the hand drums of the elk, representing the “heartbeat” of then-death row inmate Julius Jones, combined with singing in Pawnee and Seminole languages created a powerful prayer outside the Minor Penitentiary. the state of Oklahoma on Jones is scheduled to be executed.
Marcus “Quese IMC” Frejo is surrounded by members of the Pawnee and Seminole Nations, asking their Creator and ancestors for guidance and help.
As the group sang boldly, an eight-pointed deer darted out of a tree, across the road and into a field, past some nearby McAlester police.
“All the police started cheering,” Frejo said. “They couldn’t believe it. That doesn’t just happen. But we took it as a sign because in our way the deer symbolized the way out, so we were right where we needed to be, fighting for what was right. “
Right after that, the crowd that came down the street from the penitentiary heard the news that Julius Jones has been pardoned by Governor Kevin Stitt.
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Members of other tribes including Shawnee, Cherokee and Choctaw Absent Nations were part of the rally to show solidarity with Jones and to protest the death penalty.
Their opposition to the death penalty took on a new dimension following the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision last year in McGirt v. Oklahoma, arguing that the Muscogee (Creek) reserve was never officially abolished by Congress. The court found that the land, extending over 3 million acres (more than 4,600 square miles) in the eastern part of the state, has been devoted to the Creek Nation since the 19th century and still “country India” under the Major Crimes Act – grants the federal government, not the state of Oklahoma, separate jurisdiction to try specific serious crimes committed by registered tribal members on that land. The decision, which reshaped criminal jurisdiction in much of eastern Oklahoma, has since been extended by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Quapaw reservations.
That means the land on which the penitentiary stands – the site of all the executions in Oklahoma – is on the reserve of the Choctaw Nation, the third largest federally recognized tribe in America.
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While Jones’ life was spared, he is one of a long line of death row inmates expected to be executed in the coming months. Bigler Jobe “Bud” Stouffer II is expected to receive a lethal injection on Thursday unless the court allows him to stay. Governor Kevin Stitt rejected the Amnesty and Amnesty Board’s request to reduce Stouffer’s sentence on Friday.
His pending execution did not receive the same backlash as Jones. But tribe members opposed to Jones’ execution say they also oppose any further execution on tribal land.
“Oklahoma was founded on the deaths of our natives, stolen wealth, stolen mineral rights,” says Frejo. “The Sovereign, collectively known as the Indigenous Peoples, how can we reclaim our share that was stolen, and how it was stolen to death… that’s why it’s important that we fight against that (death) penalty.”
Under federal law, tribes can decide whether federal prosecutors should consider the death penalty for crimes committed by tribal members on their reservation. But tribes have no jurisdiction over whether state courts can impose the death penalty. The state of Oklahoma has jurisdiction over the McAlester prison, which has held inmates since 1908.
While anti-death penalty activists who are tribal members raise questions about whether executions should be carried out within sanctuaries, tribal governments have remained relatively silent on the matter. this problem. The Choctaw Nation declined to comment to the Oklahoman, part of the USA TODAY Network, about their official stance on the death penalty.
The problem is a complex one with no clear answer, said Oklahoma University of Law Professor and member of the Choctaw Nation, Gary Pitchlynn. Given the state’s jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-tribal members, arguing that reservation boundaries take away the state’s right to enforce in what it chooses is “jumping another fence,” Pitchlynn said.
Pitchlynn said, “It’s not as comfortable as it could be, and doesn’t fit with the tribal mindsets today,” I think it’s possible that the state, once given the authority to prosecute certain crimes – no matter what state boundaries they are in – they may have the authority to enforce those sentences. “
Ashley Nicole, a member of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe, a member of the Jones protest, said: “The death penalty is not something that should exist here on Indigenous land. “This is an ancestral war. Blacks and Indigenous peoples are standing together against the colonial government that massacred, targeted and murdered our blacks and browns and natives. “
‘A lot of our people have suffered’
To date, the only Native American tribes authorized by the federal government to pursue the death penalty for crimes committed by or against their members on their land are the Oklahoma’s Sac and Fox Nation. .
Brandy Foreman, a Cherokee citizen who held up a “#NotOnOurLand” sign at the Jones gathering in McAlester, said: “The point is, with Indigenous peoples, we are not talking about violence. “We know people pay for their crimes, but it is not violence. It doesn’t have to be death. ”
Stitt, who has the final say over whether Jones will live, voiced disagreement with McGirt’s decision. Stitt and Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Conner asked the Supreme Court to overturn the decision, which has dramatically shaped how crimes involving tribal members and land are prosecuted.
Foreman said efforts from state agencies to counter McGirt’s decision were attempts to counter something long-established.
“The problem is that the state seems to think the tribes are incompetent and can’t handle anything on a legal premise,” Foreman said. “But from this point on, you need to consider that this is tribal land, you need to respect our sovereignty, and you need to come to the table and have a discussion like this.”
Frejo said he is against the death penalty because of the indigenous peoples’ history with the US legal system.
The largest mass execution in American history was the hanging of 38 members of the Dakota tribe – some of whom were tried for no more than 5 minutes – in Minnesota on December 26, 1862.
“A lot of our people have suffered because of this system, because of the lies,” says Frejo. “It’s something we don’t forget as Indigenous people, in general.”
‘Colonial state has no legal right’ to exercise on indigenous land
Summer Wesley, who is Choctaw, said watching the Jones family and supporters await Stitt’s announcement was “very burdensome”.
“His mother received an invitation to watch her son being poisoned to death by the state of Oklahoma,” Wesley said. “It doesn’t have to be. But the reality is, when we look at that system as a whole, ruthlessness is key. ”
Wesley was on the board of directors for Matriarch OK, an Oklahoma organization that promotes the social welfare of Indigenous women, and was an attorney who worked in tribal courts for five years before leaving to practice law. to become a social worker.
She helped organize Matriarch’s recent support of the Justice for Julius campaign, including leading a #NotOnOurLand vigil the night before Jones was scheduled to be executed.
The Choctaw Nation, like most other Native American tribes, has not authorized the federal government to seek the death penalty for crimes committed by or against its members on its land. surname. However, the choice of what state governments do on their land has been taken from them, Wesley said.
“We don’t have the right to say ‘You can’t have your prison within our boundaries, or you can’t kill people in the name of your state within our boundaries,'” Wesley said. “I mean, we can say it, but we don’t have the power to actually stop it.”
From conversations with elders and reading ethnographic tables dating from early European contact with the Choctaws, Wesley said she understands that the death penalty in the Choctaw culture is for those who are not. rehibilitate.
“Our system is more focused on restorative justice,” says Wesley. “There will only be cases where that person… is basically no longer human.”
Pitchlynn said the Choctaws and other tribes may have adopted the death penalty more frequently after coming into contact with the settlers and bringing them to Indian Territory.
“Tribal cultures have a variety and variety of punishments that would otherwise be used to punish certain transgressions,” he said. “At least after the elimination and arrival in the territory, there was the death penalty.”
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In the 1800s, according to the tribe’s Bureau of Historical Preservation, the Choctaw executed members of the tribe for murder, although the process looked much different from capital punishment today.
“If an individual is found guilty of killing another Choctaw, they will be executed,” one informational document read. “However, before the execution, they were allowed to return to their families and make sure the crops were planted and harvested before their appointment.”
These executions would be carried out by the Choctaw Lighthorsemen – which, according to the American Indian Quarterly, was a system of policing established in the 1820s when certain members of the tribe began to accumulate material wealth. The last execution was in 1899.
Although the Choctaw Nation declined to comment on the Jones case or the executions that took place on tribal land, Cherokee Nation Chief Leader Chuck Hoskin Jr. spoke out on Twitter about Stitt’s clemency announcement.
Hoskin Jr. “The death penalty is of particular concern to marginalized populations who, historically, have been denied an adequate and fair measure,” said the statement. “This includes Native Americans. We all have a duty to think about this topic, talk about it, and act on it for the good of humanity and the criminal justice system. America’s.”
Over time, the U.S. government has proven that it should not trust people executed due to numerous problems in the legal system and the “cruelty” of executions.
“As far as I know, as a Choctaw woman, the colonial state has no legal right to commit crimes against humanity on our land,” Wesley said. “And we absolutely disagree with that kind of crime being committed within our borders or on our behalf.”
Contribution: Wyatte Grantham-Philips, USA TODAY.