Murder and the Remaking of a Territory

Adelle York (MDes ULE ‘19)


Tribal Delegation to the White House to negotiate land rights, 1860.

Image source: The National Archives, David M. Rubenstein Gallery, Records of Rights

The extent of Oklahoma’s state sovereignty currently rests on the outcome of a 20th century capital murder case.

In 1999, Patrick Dwayne Murphy was convicted of the murder of George Jacobs in an Oklahoma court and was, as is state law, sentenced to death. Both men were citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and the defense claimed that the crime occured in Indian Country rather than within the state of Oklahoma. For the defendant, this spatial determination is a matter of literal life or death; major crimes occurring in ‘Indian Country’ fall within federal jurisdiction, making capital punishment an unlikely outcome, whereas major crimes elsewhere fall within state jurisdiction. If the court ruled in favor of state jurisdiction, Murphy would certainly be sentenced to death.

In his obvious best interest, the defendant appealed the Oklahoma court’s ruling, claiming that the state illegally asserted jurisdiction in Indian Country and that Creek Nation territory still existed as delineated by its 1866 reservation boundary. Indian Territory became the state of Oklahoma in 1907, and it has since been assumed that this boundary no longer exists. Yet, as the arcane dimension of American Indigenous land law proves, the question of the case--whether Congress ever disestablished the 1866 boundary of the Creek Nation--has been escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court without clear indication as to which direction it will fall.

The spatial, legal, and cultural implications of this forthcoming decision cannot be understated. If the Court determines that the Creek Nation boundary was never dissolved, tribal land, governance--and therefore sovereignty--would be restituted to the tribe. It would set a precedent for the remaining four of the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ to challenge the historic disestablishment of their boundaries, and it could ultimately return half of the state of Oklahoma--roughly three times the area of Massachusetts--to tribal territories.

Previous boundaries of the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’. Image source: the author.

In the current era of Indigenous self-determination, courts are ruling in favor of greater degrees of sovereignty for tribes. This means that the tribes are gaining autonomy from federal paternalistic oversight and state interference than they have in past eras of federal law. Common law, at its core, is iterative. In real time, it alters rights and their relationships to land and is decided upon by people in inherently temporary positions. It builds upon the current cultural ethos, which creates a system of power and control that is both reflective and directive of cultural norms.

If territory is the product of socio-spatial processes that aim to exert power or control, the determination of criminal jurisdictional authority is part of the ongoing processes of (re)territorialization; the outcome of which is the territory itself. As David Knight states, “territory is not; it becomes, for territory itself is passive and it is human beliefs and actions that give territory meaning.”

The Creek Nation’s current territory encompasses metropolitan Tulsa, where over one million people reside, work, commute on state and interstate highways, and pay taxes. Still, the single most confounding aspect of this case is that America has yet to envision a future where urban land is also tribal land. Where profitable energy industries are headquartered. Where the urban dweller pays taxes to the Creek Nation. Where indigeneity is not stuck in a history book. Where multiple sovereigns collide.

Felix S. Cohen, creator of the modern field of Federal Indian law, states “the laws governing the Indians of Oklahoma are so voluminous that analysis of them would require a treatise in itself.” It is this complexity that has deterred spatial thinkers from utilizing law and governance as lens through which patterns and forms of spatial development are investigated. Furthermore, tribal jurisdictional politics have been largely unexamined as a spatial component of urban studies, and perhaps they can be informative of both modern tools of territorialization as well as a projective future for the coexistence of multiple sovereigns.

Adelle researches the territorial process of global capital, particularly those related to the cycle of non-renewable resources and American Indigenous land.


  1. Cohen, Felix. Handbook of Federal Indian Law. 4th ed. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1945.

  2. Ford, Matt. “The Grisly Murder Case That Could Turn Half of Oklahoma Back Into Tribal Lands.” The New Republic, March 15, 2018.

  3. Knight, David B. "Identity and Territory: Geographical Perspectives on Nationalism and Regionalism." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72, no. 4 (1982): 514-31.

  4. Murphy, Alexander B. "Historical Justifications for Territorial Claims." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 80, no. 4 (1990): 531-48.

This article builds upon the collective research efforts of Adelle York, Katie Gourley, Rian Rooney, and Stefan Norgaard for SES 5466 The Spatial Politics of Land taught by Professor Sai Balakrishnan.

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