From a Pastor's Desk

A series of opinion articles from rostered ministers and lay leaders from our Synod.


A Call for Justice for Indigenous Women and Tribal Rights

May 16, 2023

By The Rev. Dr. Justin Johnson



I am The Rev. Dr. Justin Johnson, pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Croton-on-Hudson, a lifelong New Yorker, and a tribal citizen of the Cherokee Nation. You may have seen a few members of the Assembly wearing red on the first day. You may have also seen images before of Native American women with a red handprint painted across their mouths. These are to bring attention to the plight of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in the United States and Canada, especially during the month of May.

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior Indian Affairs, four in five American Indian and Native Alaskan women have experienced violence, and over 50% have experienced sexual violence. There are also approximately 4,200 missing and murdered women that have gone unsolved. It is approximate because crimes are often not reported, and/or Indigenous women are often classified as Latina instead of Indigenous. In Canada, a stretch of highway is nicknamed “The Highway of Tears” because at least 30 Indigenous women’s bodies were discovered there. Indigenous women make up 40% of the women who are sex trafficked. It is a staggering statistic, and police and other governing agencies often ignore Indigenous women and families.

One of the major contributing factors to these staggering statistics is how non-Native people are prosecuted when they commit crimes on tribal lands. I am a pastor and not a lawyer, so bear with me as I summarize some complicated matters and give grace when there are errors.

In 2020, the Supreme Court gave jurisdiction to tribal courts to prosecute those who commit crimes on Native lands as a result of McGirt v. Oklahoma. For example, if the state of Oklahoma was to prosecute someone, it had to receive permission from federal courts before doing so. Prior to this, all crimes committed on tribal lands could only be prosecuted in state courts, which favored white individuals. Now, following the McGirt precedent, Native American tribes could prosecute individuals who committed crimes on tribal lands. This case gave Native American tribes sovereignty over crimes committed on their lands. The feeling for Native Americans was justice and hope that this ruling might lessen the amount of crime committed against Indigenous women.

The governor of Oklahoma immediately challenged the decision, and in 2022 the Supreme Court redefined the McGirt decision in the Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta case. Castro-Huerta was a non-Native American living on Cherokee lands and was charged with neglect of his Cherokee stepdaughter. Oklahoma challenged McGirt through the Castro-Huerta case with the argument that McGirt involved a Native American individual on Native lands. This case was a non-Native American, so the state of Oklahoma should have jurisdiction instead. With a now-flipped Supreme Court, the favor was given to Oklahoma to be once again allowed to try all criminal cases involving non-Natives in the state court system instead of tribal or federal courts. The state courts continue to favor white individuals.

The Castro-Huerta and McGirt cases affected all states, not just Oklahoma, and it's why I felt the need to write this article. This is a small bit of background information about the MMIW movement, and how it often involves states dismissing cases against Indigenous women or questioning the jurisdiction of tribal courts. Indigenous women are left without justice, and those who commit crimes against them are left free.

If you would like to hear about a specific case and how these court decisions muck-up justice against Indigenous women, I recommend season one of the podcast This Land, created by Rebecca Nagle, a Cherokee citizen. She goes into much more detail.

Throughout the month of May, please recognize in your congregations the violence Indigenous Women have to endure. Take a moment to pray for these women, and pray that they find justice; remember the thousands of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and how they continue to be denied justice or recognition here in the United States and Canada.

If you would like to learn more about justice for indigenous peoples, we recommend visiting native-land.ca