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How an Oklahoma DA and a local tribe worked together to combat gang violence


Let's look at how one Supreme Court decision rippled out through a small town in Oklahoma. When the town experienced a rash of gang violence, state prosecutors were hamstrung because the town sits on Native American land. Max Bryan from member station KWGS in Tulsa reports the local district attorney banked on his relationship with the local tribe to fight the violence.


JEREMY FULTZ: (Speaking Seminole). It's not too bad outside, Delaney. Oh, how are you doing today?

MAX BRYAN, BYLINE: That's Jeremy Fultz opening the Seminole Nation Oklahoma radio show once a week. Fultz and his co-hosts talk about community events and read announcements for members of the Seminole Nation in central Oklahoma. And on October 31, Fultz took a break talking about Halloween festivities to read this statement.


FULTZ: The Seminole Nation Lighthorse Police Department has been actively investigating several major crimes in the city of Wewoka. These crimes are related to gang activities between two gangs.

BRYAN: For weeks, Wewoka, a central Oklahoma town of 3,000, saw several shootings, including a homicide, allegedly tied to gangs. One of the gangs is primarily Indigenous. The violence led to the cancellation of a popular festival. Wewoka public schools canceled class for a day, and some people in Wewoka, like local pastor Joe Ward, weren't taking any chances.

JOE WARD: We'll have a code word in our bulletin that everybody in here will know that they can - if I ever say it from the pulpit, because I can see the doors, unless they're told otherwise, they're going to be hitting the floor and getting out of view of whoever's coming in.

BRYAN: In early November, six suspects in connection with the violence were arrested. But prosecuting gang members can be tricky in this part of the country. Because of a 2020 Supreme Court decision, the local district attorney cannot prosecute any Indigenous members of the two gangs. In McGirt v. Oklahoma, the high court ruled eastern Oklahoma, including Wewoka, is a Native American reservation, so only tribal and federal law applies to Indigenous people. And for District Attorney Erik Johnson, that means building relationships within the Seminole tribe.

ERIK JOHNSON: We all have the same interests, and so it's just finding that common ground.

BRYAN: Johnson's willingness to work with the tribe contrasts to the attitude of Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, who has openly opposed the Supreme Court decision. His opposition has led to a fractured relationship with the tribes as the state and its local prosecutors can no longer charge Native residents with crimes. But at the Seminole state of the nation address this year, Assistant Principal Chief Brian Palmer said his tribe can look after itself.


BRIAN PALMER: Our courts - they're able to protect us. We are prosecuting everything from the worst crimes of rape and murder down to a traffic ticket, and that is the responsible thing to do. That's the thing to do for our people.

BRYAN: And in this latest outbreak of gang violence, they have worked with Johnson and the feds. Johnson points out that tribal courts are only capable of sentencing defendants to up to three years in prison, which means serious crimes are better handled by the federal courts. Johnson says to keep his community safe, it's critical to work with the tribes and the feds.

JOHNSON: With the relationships we have in Seminole County and specifically in Wewoka with all the federal assets and my cooperation that I've received from the U.S. attorney's office, I don't feel like I'm going to have any challenges like that.

BRYAN: Since the six suspects were apprehended, things have started to calm down in Wewoka, and authorities say more arrests are possible. For NPR News, I'm Max Bryan in Tulsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNGLE FIRE'S "FIREWALKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Max Bryan
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