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Anglican Bishop Becomes First Chief Justice of the Seminole Nation Supreme Court

SEMINOLE NATION, OK: Anglican Bishop Becomes First Chief Justice of the Seminole Nation Supreme Court
Former TEC, now ACNA Bishop William Wantland sworn in to uphold tribal judicial system


By Mary Ann Mueller
Special Correspondent
Sept. 9, 2011

Most men at the age of 77 sit back on their laurels and enjoy the fruits of their long life. They take pleasure in their golden years of retirement. They travel; they play with their grandchildren and great-grand children; and they bask in the accolades and commendations that have come their way through a trail of lifelong accomplishments and achievements. Not many add another feather to their bonnet or begin yet another judicial career thereby securing their place in history.

Not so with the Rt. Rev. & Hon. William C. Wantland, Esq., a man who has a very familiar face and voice, not only within The Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion, but also within the highly structured world of law and the courts. The retired Eau Claire bishop has been instrumental in the re-establishment of a tribal court system within his native Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. The bishop has been named the first chief justice of the Seminole Nation Supreme Court. He will drop his first gavel on October 1. It will be on his shoulders and in his hands that the finality of the tribal judicial system rests. He will be remembered in the history books and in the annals of tribal lore.

As the retired Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Eau Claire, Wantland has worked tirelessly to see that a Seminole tribal court system was put into place. He knows it is the best thing for the needs of his people. That task is not as easy as it sounds. It is not just a matter of donning a black judicial robe and rapping a gavel on a bench to open up a new day in court. There are a lot of hoops to jump through and legislative hurdles to leap in establishing a tribal court system which includes a district court and a supreme court as well as all the logistics required to put it into place: a courtroom developed, court reporters secured and trained, bailiffs brought aboard for security and the orderly flow of things. A court docket has to be created and all players, no matter how small or how seemingly important, have to take their rightful places, even before the first call to order is cried or the first gavel sounds.

However, once the Seminole Nation Supreme Court hands down a ruling, it will be final. Since the Seminole Nation will again have a sovereign court system -- one not tied into the US courts -- the new Chief Justice's ruling will be final. There will be no appeals to the American courts or to the US Supreme Court.

The Seminole Nation is a sovereign nation within a sovereign nation. The various sovereign Native American nations encompassing more than 550 recognized Indian tribes intersect with the United State government through the Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs in unique legal and political ways provided through treaties, court rulings and federal statutes. Sometimes this interaction can be a delicate tribal dance between governments, laws, cultures and ideals.

This new tribal court is historic and will change the way Indian people perceive and receive judicial justice in the future. What the new chief justice is helping to implement will outlive him and help re-establish the sovereignty of his beloved Seminole people.

Wantland's cherished Native American heritage goes back to his Great-great-grandmother Lucy Jennings Wantland. She was a mixed blood Indian who met Charles Fleming Wantland in Grayson County, Texas. In the mid 1850s Lucy became the Indian maiden bride of Charles Fleming, an east Tennessean who moved to Grayson County in the then Republic of Texas during the days of Sam Houston. At that point, Indian blood started surging through the Wantland family tree. The couple ended up in the Oklahoma Indian Territory before the start of the Civil War. Charles became a merchandise transporter who brought goods from the Red River counties of northern Texas into the Indian Territory of Oklahoma.

Wantland is proud of all his Indian ancestry -- he also has Chickasaw and Choctaw blood in his veins -- but he is particularly proud of his strong Seminole roots. It is the Seminoles that the Seminole Nation's new chief justice most identifies with. He is tied to the land. He grew up in Seminole County, Oklahoma, the heart and nerve center of the Seminole Nation.

Although English is Wantland's first language, he speaks a fluent Seminole dialect called Muskogee, as well as Spanish and Latin. He dabbles some in French and Italian.

As a true Seminole Wantland has been given a tribal name, his Seminole name is: 'Ekvnv Yacv', which is simply is his surname translated in the Muskogee dialect. Then while in Wisconsin, he was also honored by the Lac Courte Oreilles, a band of the Lake Superior Chippewas. They accepted him as one of their own, naming him: 'Manido Nigani', meaning “He who stands forth in the Spirit”, thus acknowledging his role as an Episcopal bishop.

No matter where he has traveled or in what other places he has lived, it is to his home in Seminole, Oklahoma, that he always returns. It is to the Seminole Nation that he is giving his final years of sage wisdom born out of years of passion, training and experience.

Wantland was born to William Lindsay Wantland and Edna Yost Wantland in nearby Edmond, where his Grandfather, Charles William Wantland, was head coach at the Central State College (University). The UCO Wantland Stadium bears his name.

The names Charles and William are interwoven through all the Wantland generations: Great-great grandfather Charles Fleming, Great-uncle William Riley, and father William Lindsay. The new chief justice was named for his Grandfather Charles William with the names being given in a reversed order William Charles.

The young grandson, William Charles, was raised in the heart of the Seminole Nation. He has willingly given back to the people who nurtured him during his childhood and youth.

The Seminoles first came to Oklahoma during the infamous Trail of Tears. That death-strewn march was the direct action of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 signed by President Andrew Jackson, which resulted in the displacement of thousands of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Choctaw from their native homelands. Many of the Indians -- of all tribes -- died from exposure, cruelty and disease in the forced relocation process.

The Seminoles were the smallest tribe to be relocated as the Florida Indians put up the greatest resistance. Fewer than 3,000 were finally forced to make the trip. Only a handful of Seminoles ultimately remained in Florida. Those Seminoles were able to escape into the alligator and mosquito infested swamplands of the Florida Everglades, surviving off the land while remaining hidden and isolated, preserving their unique culture at the same time. The remaining Seminoles fought to the death for their right to remain on their land. This resistance to the government's enforced relocation policy became known as the Seminole Wars -- the Second Seminole War in particular. Three separate wars were fought in a period of time roughly spanning the mid 1810s to the late 1850s. When it was over. only about 100 Seminoles remained hidden in the Florida Everglades to repopulate their tribe. However, it is the United States that tired of the various Seminole Wars even though a peace treaty with the southern Seminoles was never executed. This is a source of pride for the remaining Florida Seminoles.

Today the 3,200 Seminoles of the Tribe of Florida and the 600 Miccosukee Seminoles -- as well as handful of independent Seminoles not associated with either tribe -- are the direct descendants of those early Seminoles who were able to avoid detection and remain on in Florida.

The Seminole Trail of Tears was the longest trek, part of which was over water - the Gulf of Mexico. The Chickasaw and the Choctaw were relocated from Mississippi, while the Creek were removed from Alabama and the Cherokee were forced out of Georgia. All ended up in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma.

Many of the Seminoles fought on the side of the Confederates during the War Between the States - an action didn't go unnoticed. As a result, little by little, the Seminoles, as well as the other Five Civilized Tribes, through a series of federal legislative actions, were eventually stripped of self-rule and their original tribal sovereignty. Their tribal courts were abolished and their right to elect their own chief was cancelled. The Seminoles had no voice in the matter.

In the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century, the Indian Territory -- of what would eventually become the State of Oklahoma -- was populated not only by the Five Civilized Tribes but also by Kiowa, Comanche, Apache, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Shawnee, Pawnee and other tribes which leap from the pages of a history book or off the screen of black and white westerns. Only the center pre-statehood counties of Canadian, Cleveland, Kingfisher, Logan, Oklahoma, and Payne were not occupied by an Indian tribe, land that was craftily whittled away from the Seminoles and Creeks.

His Grandfather, Charles William Wantland remembered being held high by his Great-grandmother Nancy Traylor Wantland to watch the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush into the so called "unassigned lands", part of which was being stripped away from the Seminoles and Muskogee Creeks following the Civil War and given away by the Federal government to eager white settlers.

As a bugle blew, at high noon on April 22, 1889 -- a day that was burned in Grandpa C.W.'s mind to the day he died - 50,000 whites streamed onto the two million acres up for grabs. By nightfall, the tent cities of Kingfisher, El Reno, Norman, Oklahoma City, Guthrie, and Stillwater sprang up on the prairie, forever changing the landscape of the Indian Territory and helping to forward the cause of Oklahoma statehood, which would occur in less than 20 years.

The new Seminole chief justice explained that in order for the State of Oklahoma to be established, the various Indian tribes were divested of most of their tribal rights and powers. Therefore, tribal justice was abolished and the tribal judicial system was turned over to the federal courts, a system which has been in place for more than a century.

The re-creation of the Seminole Nation Tribal Court System is very important to Wantland. The four other civilized tribes -- the Creeks, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Cherokees - already have a system of tribal courts. However, the Seminoles do not. Instead, the Seminoles operated under a Court of Indian Offenses, which was established under the federal government. It has been the retired bishop's passion to see a supreme court re-established within the Seminole Nation giving the Indians their own judicial jurisdiction.

However, since his retirement from the Diocese of Eau Claire and his own relocation back to the Seminole Nation, Wantland has been busy donning a black judicial robe and acting as a magistrate for the Court of Indian Offenses. He has been busy chipping away at a backlogged docket that is clogged with criminal, civil, divorce, and child custody cases. At the same time, he has been working towards the re-establishment of a Seminole Nation tribal court system.

Wantland's childhood passion and interest in the law comes from his father's side of the family. Great-great uncle William Riley Wantland, who is Charles Fleming and Lucy 's middle son, was a noted jurist in Henrietta, Texas, near Wichita Falls.

"That's what I always wanted to do, become a lawyer," Wantland said as he recalls his earliest ambition.

As an attorney, Wantland has fulfilled his childhood dream. As the first Seminole Nation Supreme Court chief justice, he fulfilled his earliest vocational yearning in ways he had probably never dreamed.

Although William Charles never met his esteemed Uncle Bill, the elder's passion for law was inbred in his great-great nephew. This passion was then passed on to another generation of Wantlands as Tim Wantland has followed in his father's legal footstep. He has become an Oklahoma attorney, too, as is his wife Melinda Wantland and their son, Russell Wantland. The passion for law in the extended Wantland family continues.

The younger William Wantland's desire was always to pursue the law and have a legal career. Towards that end, after being graduated from Seminole High School, a much-focused young Wantland attended Seminole Community College, the University of Oklahoma, George Washington University and finally earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Hawaii. He snagged his Bachelor of Law degree from Oklahoma City University and then went on the get his Juris Doctorate from OCU's School of Law.

The young lawyer settled back in Seminole to begin his law practice and almost immediately got involved in the Seminole Nation's rewriting of its Constitution which eventually lead to a referendum vote resulting in the Seminole Nation again being able to elect their own tribal chief. This laid the early groundwork for the eventual re-establishment of a tribal court system.

Wantland's work with the Seminole Nation continues. His professional association memberships have included the American Bar Association; the Oklahoma Bar Association; the American Judges Association; the American Judicature Society; Oklahoma Indian Bar; the Seminole Nation Bar; the Oklahoma Bar Foundation, where he served as chairman of committee on Indian rights; the Oklahoma Indian Rights Association, serving as executive director, president, and chairman of board; and he served as president of the Oklahoma City University Law School Alumni Association and as president of Oklahoma Conference of Municipal Judges; and he was a member of board of trustees of Oklahoma Bar Foundation.

In addition, Wantland has been on the faculties of the University of Oklahoma (law, on the Indian history faculty at Seminole State College (Indian history), and at Nashotah House Seminary (canon law). He has also been the municipal judge of Konawa, Oklahoma, the presiding judge for the Municipal Court of Seminole and has served as the attorney general for the Seminole Nation; and finally he was a consultant to U.S. Senate's American Indian Policy Review Commission.

Wantland has a brilliant legal mind. He knows Seminole Nation tribal law, American Federal law, Oklahoma state law, and Episcopal Church canon law. Not only that, he can keep it all straight.

Not many men rise to the pinnacle of two separate careers as Wantland has. Secularly, he had a successful law practice; then he entered the judiciary and now he has become the chief justice of a sovereign nation's supreme court, the highest position any judge can obtain.

Religiously, Wantland has also risen to the pinnacle of his ecclesial vocation and priesthood as a bishop. He has helped launch a new face of Anglicanism in America.

As a jurist, Wantland affects the lives of his people for years to come. As bishop, Wantland affects the souls of his flock for all eternity. He may even be snatching some from the very pits of hell through his sacramental actions.

He has received critical acclaim for his work, including three citations of merit from the Oklahoma Bar for his work on judicial reform; one citation for his work on professional economics; a citation of merit from Oklahoma legislature for his work on judicial reform; an award from American Bar Association for his judicial work at Municipal Court of Seminole; and an award from Oklahoma Supreme Court.

The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma is made up of 14 bands. Wantland is a member of the Tusekia Harjo Band, which is the largest of the 12 Native America Seminole bands. The other two bands are made up of freed blacks, those run-a-way slaves who fought with the Seminoles in Florida during the various Seminole Wars. The Seminoles gave the slaves protection and they were folded into the Seminole tribe. The Indians made the Negro slaves their blood brothers. The descendants of the slaves are now called the Black Seminoles. They followed the Seminoles to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears.

Today, there are about 18,000 registered in the Seminole Nation who are the descendants of the original 3,000 Seminoles who made the arduous trek from Florida. About 13,000 still live in their native Oklahoma. However, there are Seminoles scattered all around the world.

While Wantland was busy with his law practice, he was also an active lay member of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Seminole. One day, his Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma bishop, the Rt. Rev. Chilton Powell, approached the attorney and suggested that he seriously think about becoming a worker-priest. There was a pulpit that needed to be filled and souls to be cared for at St. Mark's.

After much thought and prayer, the Episcopal attorney took his bishop up on the deal and off he went to pursue a new career direction. First he read for Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma - a familiar practice for late vocation priests in the mid 20th Century. In 1970, Wantland was ordained and a new path of spiritual service opened up for him. At first, he served as a vicar to St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Seminole.

Eventually the newly-minted Episcopal priest's post graduate studies in Anglican theology came from Geneva-St. Alban's Theological College in Knoxville, Tennessee; Christ Church College in Canterbury, England; Cambridge University in Cambridge England; St. Deniol's Library in Hawarden, Wales; and the College of Preachers in Washington, D.C.

In time, the then Father Wantland left the active practice of civil law to become a full time priest. He was then named as rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City. It was from there that the Episcopal Diocese of Eau Claire in Wisconsin called Wantland to be its fourth bishop, a post he held for nearly two decades. He replaced the Oklahoma prairie for the Northwoods, and the blistering heat for the frigid cold of the Wisconsin Indianhead region.

While in Wisconsin, Bishop Wantland kept the Diocese of Eau Claire on the straight and narrow. The western Wisconsin Episcopal diocese was one of the remaining four TEC dioceses not to ordain females to the priesthood and to maintain proper sacramental order and practice and scriptural integrity.

After leaving Wisconsin, Bishop Wantland helped to form the Anglican Church in North America where he is a founding member of the ACNA House of Bishops. As one of the foremost Anglican canon lawyers, he also helped to pen ACNA's Constitutions and Canons and founding documents.

Wantland has not only put his hand to writing legal briefs and church canons; he is also a published author. His books include: "Foundations of the Faith"; "Oklahoma Probate Forms"; "Canon Law in the Episcopal Church"; "The Prayer Book and the Catholic Faith"; and "The Catholic Faith, The Episcopal Church, and the Ordination of Women". He is currently writing a book tentatively titled: "The Articles of Religion in the Episcopal Church."

Wantland will not give up his mitre nor set aside his croizer as he assumes the Seminole Nation's Supreme Court chief justice judgeship. He is still an active ACNA bishop and the assisting bishop in ACNA's Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. He frequently travels to the Texas diocese to help provide additional sacramental care and assist Bishop Jack Iker with confirmations and other sacraments of the church in the far-flung diocese.

When the bishop is not visiting the Texas diocese, he celebrates Mass for a small contingent of the faithful in the chapel of his Seminole home because there is not viable Anglican congregation close to him. There are only six ACNA congregations in Oklahoma.

The United States government has a very poor track record when it comes to honoring their commitments with the Indians. They seem to have broken every treaty signed with the Native Americans. Wantland prays that the Seminole Tribal Court System will find much needed permanence. However he is skeptical and cautious. He realizes the same malaise that affects the church - human fault, frailty and greed - will ultimately impact the relationship between the Seminole Nation and the federal government.

Wantland expected to be tapped as a judicial member on the first re-creation of the Seminole Supreme Court. However the nod as the chief justice took him by surprise. The appointment to the Supreme Court is a six-year team where as the chief justices are elected by the court's membership for two-year terms.

As the first chief justice, Wantland will set the tone and temper of the Seminole Supreme Court for years to come and leave a legacy behind to follow. In his proclamations and rulings from the bench he will be affecting and impacting the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma for decades to come.

Wantland had expected new Justice Joe Taylor would be elected as the first chief justice; however, it was felt since this was a new legal arm for the Seminole Nation, that a Seminole should be tapped as chief justice. Wantland was the only Seminole on the court. Justice Taylor is Choctaw and fellow Justice Kelly Stoner is Cherokee.

Wantland explained that there are not enough trained and experienced Seminole attorneys to move up onto the Supreme Court.

The new chief justice also laments the continuing loss of Native American culture, language and heritage.

He explained what is thought to be American is actually white European; that the true American way of life is lived within the various Native American nations although they have been tainted by the influence of the cultural American ways.

"When a culture ceases to exist, all suffer," Wantland explained. "Not just the people who have disappeared."

---Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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