• Lani Hansen

UKB Tribal Court continues to expand, exercise sovereignty

Updated: Mar 17


BY BRITTNEY BENNETT

EDITOR, GIDUWA CHEROKEE NEWS


TAHLEQUAH - From hearing divorce cases to addressing guardianship concerns and issuing protective orders, the United Keetoowah Band Tribal Court continues to expand its offered services to tribal members while also transitioning into a new building.


“We’re the Judicial Branch of the tribe and we follow and enforce the law,” said Kristie Bradley, UKB Tribal Court administrator and court clerk. “We want our members to know that as a sovereign nation and federally recognized tribe, we’re able to help them by providing an impartial jury of their peers in legal matters.”


The UKB Tribal Court meets every third Friday of each month beginning at 11 a.m.


It operates under the UKB trial constitution that was adopted and ratified on October 3, 1950, while the court itself was established through the 1990 Courts Act, according to Bradley.


The court first received an assessment from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2017 and began hearing cases in 2019. However, it wasn’t until November 2020 that the court was able to experience significant growth.


In October 2021, the UKB Tribal Council approved the court’s move into the new UKB Judicial Center, formerly known as the UKB Wellness Center.


Tribal Court staff officially transitioned to the new building in January 2022 along with staff from the Indian Child Welfare Department.


“We currently have two District Court judges, three Supreme Court justices and a prosecutor. We also have a public defender for criminal cases only,” said Bradley. “The District Court hears civil, criminal, and juvenile matters, while the Supreme Court hears cases of appeals and other matters as may be conferred by statute.”


Some legal remedies or grievances that can be taken to UKB Tribal Court include petitions for divorces, petitions for paternity and petitions for name changes. Keetoowahs can also seek protective orders, ask for hearings in guardianship and juvenile cases, request trials for criminal cases and receive judgments in civil and small claims cases.

For those interested in low cost or free legal representation services, Bradley stressed that the UKB Tribal Court does not currently give legal advice.

“We do not give out legal advice, but follow and enforce the law only. However, we do partner with Oklahoma Indian Legal Services and that’s where we recommend our tribal members if they need legal representation.”


Bradley said the court’s services will continue to expand in other areas in the wake of McGirt v. Oklahoma in 2010, which established that the Muscogee Creek Nation reservation had never been dissolved. The ruling has since opened the door for the argument that other Native reservations in Oklahoma had also never been dissolved, including that of the Cherokee.


“Since McGirt, we have more authority in our jurisdiction. We have had other counties contact us when one of our tribal members has been arrested. They contact us and then our Lighthorse Police takes over the investigation and writes up a report for our prosecutor. The prosecutor will then either pick it up and file charges or decline to press charges in criminal cases. We’re just trying to give our people a fair day in court.”


Bradley said the court also has plans to utilize already existing UKB resources for certain outcomes in cases when appropriate.


"Say someone gets a public intoxication ticket. Obviously they have an alcohol problem, but instead of just racking up fines from the state, we can send their case to our court and assign them projects that give back to our tribal community,” she said. “We are also working on a partnership with tribe’s Echota Behavioral Health, whether it be sending members for rehab, anger management, any behavioral health problems and it stays within our tribe.”


In September 2021 the UKB Tribal Court was also awarded permission to participate in the Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information program.


It provides tribal governments with means to access, enter and exchange data with national crime information systems, including those maintained by the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Division and the states.


“We will start doing fingerprinting this summer and background checks soon," said Bradley. "TAP is important because it allows our ICW, Housing and Human Resources departments to conduct their own background investigations. Instead of paying a third party, we will be able to pull our own checks. We’re growing and it’s because we’re able to exercise our sovereign rights through our tribal government.”


To learn more about the UKB Tribal Court or to download court petition or affidavit forms, please visit www.ukb-nsn.gov/ukbtribalcourt.


All cases must be paid for when filing. A fee schedule is available from the Court Clerks by contacting Deputy Court Clerk Sara Wininger at 918-871-2769.


To learn more about Oklahoma Indian Legal Services, please visit www.oilsonline.org/.

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