Bishop Wantland selected as first Chief Justice
of Seminole Nation Supreme Court

swearing-in of justicesOn Monday, Aug. 8, the Rt. Rev. William Wantland, assisting bishop of our diocese, was sworn in as head of a panel of Supreme Court Justices for the Seminole Nation. The court is being reinstated for the first time since Oklahoma attained statehood. The Hons. Joe Taylor and Kelly Stoner were sworn in as Justices, with Bishop Wantland as Chief Justice. Also at the ceremony the Hon. Greg Bigler took his oath as District Judge.

The Seminole Nation was established as an independent Indian Nation on Aug. 7, 1856, after the government-mandated migration known as the Trail of Tears, and the formal merger that made Seminoles a part of the Creek Nation. At the time, the Seminoles had their own Constitution, written in Seminole.

In preparation for Oklahoma Statehood in 1907, Congress greatly reduced the authority of what were known as the Five Civilized Tribes. All Tribal Courts were abolished, and the right to elect the Principal Chief was also abolished; following that date the Chief was to be appointed by the Federal government.

A native Oklahoman, Bishop Wantland is a citizen of the Seminole Nation and a member of the Tusekia Harjo Band of the Nation. He graduated from Seminole High School in 1952 and earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Hawaii. In 1964 he graduated from the school of law at Oklahoma City University. That same year the Seminoles began working on a new Constitution. He was appointed to the Constitutional Committee the following year; a referendum vote on the Constitution was taken in 1969.

“It was overwhelmingly adopted,” he recalls, “restoring the right to elect our Chief. However, there was no provision for a court system, because the Bureau of Indian Affairs said we could not have courts.” Nevertheless, the government provided for an Attorney General, and Bishop Wantland filled this position for eight years, until 1977.

Bishop WantlandAt the same time, he was called to the Episcopal priesthood and was ordained in 1970. He earned a Doctorate in Religion in 1976. He served at churches in Seminole and Holdenville before becoming rector of St. John's in Oklahoma City. In 1980 he was elected Bishop of the Diocese of Eau Claire (Wisconsin) and served 19 years. Among his appointments and distinctions within the Church, he lectured in canon law at Nashotah House Seminary and was Vice President of the Episcopal Chancellors’ Network from 1987 to 1996. Following his retirement from Eau Claire, he served a year as Bishop of the missionary diocese of Navajoland.

In 1993 Congress passed legislation supporting tribal courts. At first, says Bishop Wantland, “the Seminole Nation utilized the Code of Federal Regulations Court of Indian Offenses, a Federal Court authorized to handle limited kinds of cases, but no internal of tribal constitutional matters. I have served as the Magistrate of this CFR Court for the past five years.

“In 2008, the Seminole Nation adopted an amendment to the Constitution providing for a tribal court system, with a District Court and a Supreme Court. We finally got Federal approval of our Amendment in 2010. We had been working on law codes and a structure for a court system for the past four years.”

The court system has gained federal approval and funding from the tribal General Council.

“In June, the Principal Chief appointed, and the General Council approved, a District Judge and three Supreme Court Justices. I was named by the other Justices as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Seminole Nation for a term of two years. The court system will formally take over all judicial operations on Oct. 1, 2011.”