When US law discriminates differently against Black Native Americans

The New York Times recently published a harrowing about a pair of Black men, Michael Hill and Aaron Wilson, who are also citizens of Native American nations in Oklahoma, and how courts failed one of them in a particular shameful display of the white supremacy embedded in the legal system. Both men were arrested on tribal territory by municipal Oklahoma police. Both moved to have their cases dismissed, on the grounds that the police were outside of their legal jurisdiction — but Hill's request was denied, on the grounds that the United States government does not recognize him as a Native American, even though he is a citizen of tribal nation.

Wait, what?!

I'd advise you to read the full reporting that Chris Cameron and Mark Walker did for the Times, but here's the basic gist of the case as I understand it:

Back in 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled that a large portion of eastern Oklahoma was technically part of Indian reservation land. By recognizing that land as tribal property, it means that the state of Oklahoma has no legal jurisdiction there; as a result, lawmaking power lies with the respective tribal authorities and/or the US federal government. From the Times:

After the Supreme Court's decision in the case, McGirt v. Oklahoma, hundreds of people successfully had their criminal cases in state courts dismissed, as the ruling prevents state authorities from prosecuting offenses committed by Native Americans on tribal land. Instead, those offenses can now be prosecuted only by tribal and federal authorities.


Many tribes allied themselves with the Confederacy and fought to preserve the institution of slavery. After the Civil War, treaties between the federal government and the tribes abolished slavery and granted the Freedmen "all the rights" of citizens in the tribal nations.

And that's where things get legally complicated. Freedmen are the descendants of Black people who were enslaved by Native American tribes, some of whom are now recognized as members of those same nations that had once enslaved their ancestors. Hill is one such person: a Freedman, and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Despite being a recognized citizen of that nation, however, Hill does not technically have any Cherokee blood—and as such, the United States does not recognize him as a Native American. This goes back to the antiquated racist "blood quantum" laws, a quantification tool weaponized by American settlers to control the definitions of who "counts" as a Native American, with no regard for the ways in which actual Native American nations and communities might understand or define their own citizenship or membership.

In other words, it's the huge, ugly mess of colonialism. It's something that a lot of Americans born in the US after 1960 cannot wrap their heads around. It's why so many white Americans in particular have such overly simplistic views of immigration. They were raised with a binary black-and-white view of "citizenship" and "nationhood" that might reflect their personal experiences with bureaucracy, but has absolutely nothing to do with the lived reality of many, many people in the US and beyond. Lines on a map are not hard, objective facts—they're literally just lines that someone drew on one particular map. And in this case, the fate of a person's life depends on two different maps made hundreds of years ago that don't line up with each other. How is that just?

Two Black Members of Native Tribes Were Arrested. The Law Sees Only One as Indian. [Chris Cameron and Mark Walker / The New York Times]

Full disclosure: I also write for Wirecutter, which is owned by the New York Times Company, which also publishes The New York Times.