Cherokee Courthouse Question Remains: Who Owns The Land?

Friday, August 27th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

A battle is brewing over who has property rights to some of northeastern Oklahoma's most historic land. The question is whether the Cherokee Nation owns the land around the tribe's courthouse in Tahlequah. A Cherokee county judge said Thursday the answer is important. Once the landowner is known, the tribe's new chief can clear up criminal and civil cases stemming from a protest on the courthouse lawn two years ago.

New Cherokee chief Chad Smith was arrested during the protest and charged with assaulting a police officer and inciting a riot. Smith says the non-Cherokee officers who arrested him never had jurisdiction because the land around the courthouse is Indian country. "Anybody can see the charges are bogus," said Smith. "Our firm position is that the courthouse sets on Indian land. That is our contention until a federal judge tells us it isn't."

A federal judge is hearing the case that Smith filed against several county leaders following his arrest. Cherokee county district judge Bruce Sewell has ruled the criminal case against Smith will wait until that federal judge rules on the "Indian country" issue. Tahlequah city and Cherokee County leaders always thought the property was Indian land, until the prosecutor received a letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs two years ago. The letter said that the courthouse property was not Indian land. "It was a shock to us," said District Attorny Diane Barker Harrold. "Once we thought it was Indian country. Then we get a letter and it's not Indian country. It's confusing."

Smith says it's not confusing. He says a top level BIA administrator only read the 1978 deed when the county and city passed the title of the land to the tribe. Smith thinks the administrator who wrote the letter never looked at a judge's decision turning the rights over to the Cherokee Nation. "The way we view it, it was off the cuff, without due diligence and done without research," he said.

But Harrold, the district attorney being sued by Smith, says she has to stick with the government's interpretations. And she hopes the federal judge makes a quick decision. "I don't care which way it goes," said the D.A. "But we need a definite answer, something we can rely on."

Harrold and Smith both hope a settlement is reached before the cases go any further. The issue must still be settled for future cases and for history itself.