The mission of the Tribal Court is to exercise the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the Seminole Nation by providing a forum for the enforcement of Tribal law and the administration of justice in dispute affecting the interest of the Seminole Nation or its members.
The Seminole Nation’s judicial powers were officially restored in October with the initial sessions of both the District and Supreme Courts. Justice Gregory Bigler officially called the District Court to service in a ceremony held Monday, October 3, 2011. Supreme Court Justices William Wantland, Kelly Gaines-Stoner and Joe Taylor convened two weeks later, on Monday, October 17, 2011.
All four justices were officially sworn-in at an August 8, 2011 ceremony held at the Reynolds Wellness Center in Seminole. The Seminole Nation Lighthorsemen were also officially recalled to the service of the Supreme and District Courts during the ceremony.
“I wish to welcome all the visitors and dignitaries we have this morning,” Justice Bigler announced during the ceremonial first session of the Seminole Nation District Court on October 3, 2011 at the Mekusukey Mission Council House. “This is the first session of the Seminole Nation Tribal District Court.”
“At least for this century,” he quipped.
The United States Congress’ creation of the Dawes Commission and subsequent passing of the Curtis Act in 1898, which subjected all persons living within Indian Territory to federal regulations and prohibited enforcement of established tribal laws, greatly diminished the judicial powers of the Seminole Nation.
Oklahoma’s admission to the Union on November 16, 1907 dealt the fatal blow, effectively disassembling the judicial powers of the Five Civilized Tribes in favor of a centralized state court system that superseded all original jurisdictions in Indian Territory.
“What we have done today to get us to the point where we can open this court is something that will move the Seminole people forward into the future,” Justice Bigler continued. “And it deserves to be remembered that that has occurred. Even if it is just a footnote.”
While certainly a joyous occasion, Justice Bigler noted that a lot of hard work and difficult decisions lie ahead.
“Not everything that the court will do in the future will be something you find agreeable,” he said. “As a judge, as I get older and older, I realize those things which I have to decide become more difficult.”
“In the tribal courts, we see much more directly the impact our decisions have on the people and our government,” Justice Bigler, who also serves as attorney general for the Sac and Fox Nation and Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, Supreme Court justice for the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma and Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas and appellate judge for the Mashantucket Pequot Nation, added.
“But nonetheless, you have entrusted ourselves with the responsibility to make those decision, and we cannot avoid that or back off from those decisions, whatever they might be,” he concluded.
Assistant Chief Ella Colman spoke after Justice Bigler and acknowledged the work of the Seminole Nation Judicial Committee, a three-member board comprised of Jane Northcott, Jerry Haney and Glenn Sharpe, and Tribal Court Administrator Tresa Gouge.
“Today is a new chapter in the Seminole Nation,” she said. “It marks an important milestone in our ability to exercise our sovereign authorities.”
“By the grace of God and the perseverance and fighting spirit of our people, the third branch of government has been reinstated,” she added.
“It is a very great honor for me to be a part of this,” added Chief Justice William Wantland of the Seminole Nation Supreme Court. “This is a great day.”
Supreme Court Justice Joe Taylor began his address by noting that the United States Supreme Court was also convening on the first Monday in October.
“The Seminole Nation has been in the business of resolving disputes and setting policy far longer than the United States of America,” he pointed out.
“It’s a joyous day. But it’s also a day for us to remember and reflect and focus on the work that the judicial branch of the Seminole Nation will be doing,” Justice Taylor concluded.