Structuring the Cherokee Nation Justice System: The History and Function of the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service

AuthorWilliam P. Heck,Michael R. Wilds,Ralph Keen
Published date01 March 2001
Date01 March 2001
Subject MatterJournal Article
Structuring the Cherokee Nation Justice
System: The History and Function of
the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service
William P. Heck
Ralph Keen, Jr.
Michael R. Wilds
Northeastern State University
On July 4, 1986, a Cherokeetribal member was shot in the leg and arrested by a dep-
uty in Adair County, Oklahoma. In a subsequent civil action, the Tenth Circuit Court
of Appeals ruled that absent a statutory grant of authority by Congress or consent
fromthe tribe itself, Oklahoma law enforcement officers have no criminal jurisdiction
“in Indian country” unless the crime is committed by a non-Indian against another
non-Indian or the crime is a victimless crime committed by a non-Indian. Realizing
that theywere no longer protected by the state, the CherokeeNation responded by cre-
ating its own Marshal Service. This article describes the evolution of that agency,
checkerboardjurisdiction, and the need for cross deputization. In particular,the arti-
cle addressesthe recent political tribal crisis that almost devastated the newly formed
Marshal Service and the tribe’s current struggle to regain stability in the politically
charged aftermath.
On July 4, 1986, several large groups of people spent the day picnicking at
the W. W. Keeler (a.k.a. Greasy) Ballpark in southern Adair County,
Oklahoma. Early that evening, the president of the South Greasy Commu-
nity Park Association notified the Adair County Sheriff’s Department and
requested the presence of deputies to help control drinking and reckless
driving in the park. Deputy Billy Jack McLemore arrived on the scene and
soon became involved in a physical altercation when attempting to arrest
Ronnie Ross, a Cherokee tribal member, for public intoxication. During the
incident, McLemore shot Ross in the leg, which later required amputation
below the knee. Ross filed a civillawsuit against the sheriff, the deputy, and
the Adair County Sheriff’s Department. The most significant claim, and the
one that would have the greatest impact on the Cherokee Nation justice sys-
tem, was that Oklahoma peace officers had no jurisdiction to arrest an
Criminal Justice Policy Review, Volume 12, Number 1, March 2001 26-42
© 2001 Sage Publications, Inc.
Indian in Indian country (Ross v. Neff, 1990). On June 4, 1990, the Tenth
Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of Ross, holding that criminal juris-
diction for Oklahoma law enforcement officers in Indian country is limited
to crimes committed “by non-Indians against non-Indians . . . and victimless
crimes by non-Indians” unless the tribe consents to jurisdiction or Congress
expressly grants jurisdiction to the state (Ross v. Neff, 1990, p. 1352).1
Because no tribal consent or congressional grant of jurisdiction existed, the
Adair county sheriff had no jurisdiction to arrest Ross, a tribal member, in
Indian country.
Following this landmark decision, Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller
directed two of the Cherokee Nation’s top officials, Chadwick Smith (who
would later become the principal chief) and Pat Ragsdale (a tribal adminis-
trator over government operations) to establish a tribal agency that would
ensure a permanent law enforcement presence on tribal lands. That agency
would become known as the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service.2
This article will examine the history and development of law enforce-
ment in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma following the “Trailof Tears.” It
will seek to demonstrate the need for the marshal service and cross
deputization of tribal and county law enforcement officers to deal with the
jurisdictional maze created by federal policies of forced assimilation and
allotment of tribal lands prior to Oklahoma statehood. The attempted dis-
mantling of the marshal service during the recent conflict between the exec-
utive and judicial branches of the Cherokee Nation will also be discussed.
Finally, effortsby the new administration to reorganize the marshal service
will be outlined with special emphasis on problems faced by a handful of
officers charged with enforcing tribal law in fragments of Indian country
scattered over the 14-county area that comprises the Cherokee Nation.
The Cherokee Nation evolved from a confederation of villages to a cen-
tralized government modeled after that of the United States during the early
1800s. Being the first tribe to develop a written language in their native
tongue (Sequoyah’s Syllabary), the Cherokee had both written laws and a
written constitution as early as 1827. Interestingly, they fought oppression
by the state of Georgia and early intrusions by White settlers through the
United States court system. For instance, in 1828, when gold was discov-
ered in the mountains near Dahlonega, Georgia, the area suddenly became
attractive to White prospectors. The state of Georgia beganenacting laws to
extinguish Indian title and preventthe Cherokee from acting as an independent

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