A football team finally discards a despised and derogatory name, and the U.S. Supreme Court unexpectedly holds Congress to account for promises more than a century old. These two decisions, one symbolic, one legal, should provide some genuine hope that despite so many challenges, society is capable of positive change.
The first reform may seem inconsequential to some. The Washington Redskins, after decades of pressure, have renounced a nickname that has long been a pejorative for American Indians. The team did so not out of altruism, but because corporate sponsors applied the ultimate pressure — potential loss of revenue. Corporations are far more sensitive to public opinion than politicians, it would seem, and have wound up helping to lead change on LGBTQ issues, climate, Black Lives Matter and now this. FedEx threatened to pull its name from the team’s stadium because it considered the name at odds with its values. Nike pulled team gear from its online stores. These firms recognized that public sentiment has changed on these issues and will no longer tolerate offensive denigration of some groups.
The other decision, that of the Supreme Court in McGirt v. Oklahoma, is nothing short of historic. Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the court, opened his opinion with stirring words: “At the end of the Trail of Tears was a promise.” What followed was a decision that at long last holds the U.S. to treaties long forgotten by many. Gorsuch said the eastern half of Oklahoma, given to the Creek tribe in return for its ceding other land in an 1833 treaty, was in fact theirs. “Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”
An avowed textualist, Gorsuch said that while such a decision might be uncomfortable for some, “wishes don’t make for laws, and saving the political branches the embarrassment of disestablishing a reservation is not one of our constitutionally assigned prerogatives.” Only Congress, he said, can divest a reservation of its land.
Tim Johnson, a professor at the University of Minnesota and national expert on Supreme Court decisions, said the decision is a strong affirmation of the power of treaties and a major victory for Indian tribes in Oklahoma and across the country. The case itself deals with the issue of whether the state or federal government should have tried a Jimcy McGirt, a Seminole man, for crimes on Muscogee Creek treaty lands. Gorsuch’s decision, Johnson said, looks at the criminal jurisdiction issue, deciding in favor of federal jurisdiction, but then goes broader, to an acknowledgment of U.S. treaty responsibilities that he said lawyers will be studying for years.
There could, he said, be implications for Minnesota, where tribes have clashed with government officials and communities over a variety of issues, including fishing rights and, most recently, whether the Line 3 oil pipeline could run through historic treaty land.
“It remains to be seen how broadly this will be interpreted,” Johnson said, but “this would seem to give pretty broad rights to tribes across the U.S.”
Taken together, the recent developments are “two harbingers that show we are in an era of real change,” Johnson said in an interview with an editorial writer.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, an Ojibwe, said she never thought she would see the Redskins name dropped in her lifetime. Then, she told an editorial writer, she read the opening line of the Gorsuch decision, which she found so powerful that as she read it, “I held my breath.”
In a sentiment that should find broad support, Flanagan said that “I hope and pray these two decisions will continue to lead to more change,” and result in a society where “people are seen, heard and valued.”