From the moment European settlers set foot on what is now American soil, things haven’t gone so well for the Indigenous people. The list of wrongdoings, from mistaking them as Indians (from India) to wiping out entire tribes for a few acres of land, is endlessly long. Centuries later, Native Americans are still fighting to be recognized, and recently, in a shocking Supreme Court decision, tribes were awarded half the land in Oklahoma. The entire decision hinged on one bizarre technicality, and to make matters even stranger, it all started with a murder.
In the summer of 1999, Patrick Dwayne Murphy stabbed George Jacobs and left him to die on the side of the road. Jacobs’s cousin witnessed the murder, and Murphy even outright confessed to his wife and the police. Everyone looking at the situation assumed it was an easy open-and-shut case, but they had all missed one critical detail.
Patrick Murphy and George Jacobs had several things in common. They both lived in Vernon, a tiny town in Oklahoma. They were also both members of Muscogee Nation, the fourth largest Native American tribe in the U.S. And lastly, both men had been married to the same woman named Patsy. A commonality that would prove fatal for Jacobs.
In the summer of 1999, Patsy was married to Murphy, but before that she and Jacobs (the deceased) were married, and they had a son together. Murphy was always jealous of Patsy’s ex-husband, and on one “ordinary” night, he marched up to his wife and told her that he was going to kill George Jacobs and his entire family.
That same day, Jacobs had been drinking heavily with his cousin, Mark Sumke. By the time night fell, Jacobs was passed out in the backseat of Mark’s Dodge sedan. They were driving on a narrow, unlit dirt road on the north end of Vernon when they pulled over to let another car pass. That car was Patrick Murphy’s.
Murphy got out of his car and tried to attack Mark Sumke, but Mark was able to escape and run off to hide behind some nearby trees. Jacobs, being unconscious, wasn’t so lucky. By the time Sumke returned to his car to check on Jacobs, it was too late. His cousin was lying in a ditch in a gruesome state.
Jacobs’s throat had been slit and he had several slashes across his stomach and chest. Most disturbingly, Jacobs’s genitals had been mutilated. Police estimated that it took George Jacobs somewhere around 12 minutes to bleed to death. After leaving the scene of the crime, Murphy went home to Patsy and told her exactly what he did.
Jacobs’ family put a white metal cross on the side of the road where he was killed. They wanted to have something to honor him by as well as a symbol of their loss. What Jacobs’ family didn’t know was that their white cross would not only blow up the entire case against Patrick Murphy; it would win Native Americans over half the land in the state of Oklahoma.
Because Murphy confessed, the investigation and trial proceedings went pretty quickly…at first. Murphy was found guilty of the murder of George Jacobs and sentenced to death. Oklahoma — in 1999 and still to this day — exercises capital punishment. But Murphy, guilty as he was, wasn’t prepared to die over this. So he appealed his case.
This time, Murphy had Lisa McCalmont, a federal public defender, representing him. Lisa noticed something about Murphy’s case that everyone else missed. The police had reported the location of the murder incorrectly. They had the right road, but they were off by a few miles. The crime’s actual location was now marked by a large white metal cross.
Lisa compared police images from the scene of the crime to the two locations, and even went so far as to hire an accident reconstruction expert to help prove her point. It was confirmed that the police made a mistake: George Jacobs was actually murdered at the exact location where his family put that white cross. This seemingly irrelevant correction had the power to change Murphy’s fate.
Once Lisa discovered where the murder actually took place, she started to dig into the history of who actually owned the land, which in Oklahoma is way more complicated than it sounds. But this was critical because both Murphy and Jacobs belonged to Muscogee Nation, so if the crime happened on Indian land, the state of Oklahoma had no jurisdiction in the case and couldn’t sentence Murphy to death.
Before attaining statehood, the whole eastern half of what is now Oklahoma was Indian Territory. Where Jacobs was murdered and all the land surrounding it was communally owned by Muscogee Nation until the 1900s. That’s when hundreds of white settlers began to move into the area and started demanding land for themselves. And if you know anything about American history, you already know that they got it.
In a process known as “allotment,” the government took what was communal tribe territory and divided it up into pieces to be owned by individuals, both native and not. This was problematic for two reasons. First, until that point, Native American’s hadn’t ever owned land; it was all communal, part of what kept their community strong and functioning. Second, if anyone ever sold their land, it ceased to be Indian Territory.
Over several decades, what was once a vast expanse of Indian land became a sparse checkering of it. Today, the plots that are still considered Native are few and far between. Lisa discovered the location where Jacobs was murdered was actually on a plot of Indian land that had been sold. However, the owner didn’t sell the land “entirely.”
Technically, only the first few feet of land had been sold, and the Native family reserved mineral rights. Essentially only the topsoil belonged to the current owner and everything underneath was still Indian land. So Lisa decided to use this argument to overturn Murphy’s death sentence, but because she knew this was her only shot at winning the appeal, she took it a step further. A massive step further.
Instead of arguing that the location where Jacobs was murdered was actually still Indian land, Lisa brought the argument that all of eastern Oklahoma, what was once considered Indian Territory before Oklahoma was a state, is still Indian land. And her position wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. Congress had actually never dissolved the reservation.
The land Lisa claimed was still Indian territory is a massive expanse of eastern Oklahoma that spans 11 different counties and 19 million acres. While this victory of the land would be colossal for Native Americans in Oklahoma and beyond, the Muscogee tribe isn’t actually from there. They only moved into the area in the 1830s, when the government marched them there at gunpoint.
The Muscogee tribe is originally from the eastern part of the U.S. but was forcibly removed from their native land and relocated further west — to what was deemed “undesirable” land at the time — during the Trail of Tears. Out of 20,000 Muscogees who made the march, 3,500 of them died on the trail. Those who survived were forced to rebuild in this new foreign land with only the clothes on their backs.
But the Muscogee people are resilient. They forged a new home in modern-day Oklahoma and, today, there are over 80,500 members of Muscogee Nation. There are also now over a million non-native people living within the disputed Muscogee territory. In considering Murphy’s case, the court seems most concerned about what would happen to the non-native people if the Tribe won.
Basically, the court was worried that all of a sudden a million non-native people would wake up to discover that they are now living on a reservation, and chaos would ensue. The court questioned if people on the reservation could now evade taxes? Could thousands of criminal sentences be overturned? Could Muscogees just start evicting all non-native people?
The short answer to all of those questions is: no. Most non-native people don’t understand Indian law, but it became extremely apparent throughout the trial that the U.S. government doesn’t understand it, either. Many people think of tribes as a racial concept, but a tribe’s function is actually governance. In contrast, it was the U.S. government that imposed a damaging racial divide on Native tribes, especially the Muscogee.
Back when the government stepped in to divide tribal land in Oklahoma for allotment, they implemented a system to determine who receives land and how much. They called it blood quantum. Full-blooded Muscogees were the most privileged; if you were less than half Muscogee, you lost your right to Indian land; and then there were the freedmen, former African slaves who were now members of the tribe. Freedmen were only allotted a child’s share of land.
Even if Muscogees decided not to sell their land, it didn’t mean that it was safe from being taken away. With more and more people moving west, the area saw a major influx of white people, and they wanted land for themselves. After Oklahoma became a state in 1907, swindling land from Native people became so common it was actually given an official name: grafting.
Grafters were so eager to take land they would go about getting it by any means necessary. It was easiest to steal land from orphan children, but if there weren’t any orphans left, grafters would kill their parents. A more systematic approach was stealing land through guardianship. A court could deem a Native person incompetent for any reason and assign them a white guardian to handle all their assets, land included.
One example of how guardianship could play out was the case of Lydia Kingfisher. She was a full-blooded Cherokee woman who owned a laundry business. One day a grafter walked into her shop and offered to “protect” her against other people who might try to steal her land. When Lydia declined his offer, he threw a vat of scalding water on her.
Lydia survived, but she was so badly burned that she was disabled for the rest of her life. The grafter then sued Lydia, and the judge appointed him as her legal guardian. After the trial, the grafter sold the entirety of her land to none other than the judge who appointed him as her guardian. Taking land from Natives was as easy as stating it wasn’t theirs anymore, and that’s exactly why this case was so critical.
Patrick Murphy was convicted in 1999, but the case dragged on twenty years until the summer of 2019 when the U.S. Supreme Court finally gathered to make their decision. Did the government ever dissolve the Indian reservation? Is half the land in Oklahoma actually Native American territory? By this point Native people across the country were invested in this case, waiting to see if they had anything more to lose.
The question of whose land it was went through several different iterations since Patrick Murphy’s appeal. In fact, a completely different case, OK, McGirt v. Oklahoma, was the one being decided by the Supreme Court on July 9th, 2019, but the question at the center of it was the same: whose land? Later that morning, the court published its groundbreaking verdict.
The Supreme Court determined that the reservations still exist! That decision marks the largest restoration of Tribal land in all of American history. Around 19 million acres of modern-day Oklahoma is Indian Territory, belonging to not only the Muscogee Nation, but also to the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole.
Native tribes have a long history of being erased, physically, legally, and culturally. So much has been lost over the years that can never be brought back, but many Native people are working hard to salvage what’s left of their culture and tradition and educate people about what Native life is really like.
For nearly 100 years, tribes have gathered at the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial. This picture is from the 1940 gathering in Gallup, New Mexico. These tribesmen are blowing eagle bone whistles as a part of the Sun Dances, which are healing ceremonies primarily practiced by Plains peoples.
Photographer Edward S. Curtis captured this stunning image of three native hunters on horses, impressive against the cliffs in the background. The image has a descriptive title, “Sheep Mountain, Three Sioux mountain sheep hunters in the Bad Lands of South Dakota,” and was taken in 1905.
In the surging waters of the Columbia basin, tribal fishers build specialized structures for platform fishing. They’re constructed while the water levels are still low and give fishers better access to salmon swimming upstream. Tribes build their scaffolds in the same place every year using the same site as their ancestors.
A group of Apache children and a tired (we assume) adult play outside their thatched huts. These homes are wickiups and have wooden frames covered in yucca fibers and other types of brush. Highland sections of the Apaches were big fans of this type of structure.
During a Navajo Yebichai — a nine-day healing ceremony in the desert — two men dress as Toneneli (the Water God) and Haschelti (the Talking God). This photo took place on the sixth day of the massive celebration outside of St. Michael’s, Arizona.
These earthen ovens, or hornos, are made from sun-dried mud bricks covered in a thin layer of mud. They can bake, roast, and steam food, creating a tasty meal with plenty of variety. They’re still used in New Mexico and Arizona. We’d love to try something cooked in one of these.
These women are from one of the 12 bands of the Utes. They lived near the Puebloans and regularly traded with them. When the Utes met Spanish colonists, they acquired horses, dramatically shifting their lifestyle from defensive fighting to raiding other tribes.
In 1904, three Navajo men were photographed as they sat in a line. Based in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, they’re currently registered as the largest tribe in North America. Four hundred Navajo men served as code talkers during WWII, relaying important war messages in their native language, which wasn’t ever decoded by the Japanese.
Of the Apache nation, the man on this horse belonged to peoples who moved across America, settling along mountains, valleys, deserts, canyons, and even a section in the Great Plains called Apacheria. When Spanish and Mexican (and later United States) soldiers tried to invade, the Apaches strategically fought them with everything they had.
This image contains some of the Native Americans who worked with General Miles in the 1890s to settle the Indian War: Standing Bull, Bear Who Looks Back Running, Has the Big White Horse, White Tail, Liver [Living] Bear, Little Thunder, Bull Dog, High Hawk, Lame, and Eagle Pipe.
In Noatak, Alaska, a group of Iñupiat men float along in their kayaks. They’re related to the Thule people who migrated from islands in the Bering Sea to Alaska. Interestingly, the famous Iditarod dog race actually follows trails used by the Iñupiats: the Dena’ina and Deg Hit’an.
As a response to the Washington D.C.’s dissolution of Muscogee National government and removing them from their lands, Chitto Harjo organized a well-strategized response. Through his and the other Muscogees’ efforts, their tribe remained intact. Their fight lasted for years before a resolution.
In 1920, Mohican tribemember Chief Lemuel Occum Fielding visited Washington D.C., along with his daughter, Myrtice Germaine, and his son, Everett Fielding. He made the trip to help President Woodrow Wilson recover from his stroke and to insist his claim for lands outside of Norwich, Connecticut.
Pawnee Natives lived in earthen homes. These abodes were shaped with wooden frames and covered with compacted dirt, and the round houses in this picture were built near Loup, Nebraska. When they traveled, Pawnees sheltered in buffalo-hide tipis (teepees). Tipis were the perfect portable tents to keep the travelers warm and comfortable.
The Navajo people were semi-nomadic by the time European colonists came to America. In their society, women owned livestock, property, and everything else. Their husbands would move in with them after marriage, and in divorce, the women would retain their possessions and children.
The bride and her father (left) stand between two meticulously carved totem poles during the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw (Kwakiutl) couple’s wedding ceremony. “We will dance when our laws command us to dance, and we will feast when our hearts desire to feast,” Oʼwax̱a̱laga̱lis, Chief of the Kwaguʼł, said to anthropologist Franz Boas when he visited their settlement on October 7, 1886.
The six tribes of the Klamath nation lived around the Klamath Basin in Oregon. One section, the Klamath Marsh, is lush and full of plants like the woka (great yellow water lily.) Klamaths used to rely on this flower as a diet staple, but now prepare the flower as a delicacy.
Red Hawk (Cetan Luta) was an Oglala Lakota from the Oyahpe band who fought alongside Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull at Little Bighorn. He witnessed plenty of violent conflicts as the European colonists forced their way across the U.S. Indigenous tribes faced an unprecedented strife in this time period.
When a Hopi girl reached puberty, she underwent an intense initiation ceremony that involved grinding corn at her paternal grandma’s home. At the end, the girl’s mother would wind her hair around curved wooden pieces. The frame is removed, creating the signature squash blossom whorl style.
“Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” traveling show claimed to give a glimpse into what daily life was like in the still undeveloped western section of the U.S. This included the Native Americans who also lived in the area. Bill partnered with Indigenous performers from Great Plains tribes who wore feathered headdresses and rode painted horses.