Oklahoma-based tribes say followed rules on Freedmen rights

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Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Tribes Association of Oklahoma City, testifies before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee about the status of the descendants of enslaved people formerly held by the Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Cherokee Nations, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Leaders and representatives of five Oklahoma-based tribes on Wednesday told a U.S. Senate committee that they have followed treaties and court rulings regarding the citizenship of Freedmen and that the federal government should respect their sovereignty.

Freedmen were the freed Black people enslaved by the Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Chickasaw nations. They were guaranteed the rights of citizens of the tribes under separate 1866 treaties with the United States.

That happened in the territory that became Oklahoma and not the rest of the slaveholding South because the U.S. government enforced stricter terms on Native American nations with slave-owners, and fully or partially joined with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

“History does not bode well in terms of efforts by the United States to impose its values,” on Native American tribes, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Ambassador Jonodev Chaudhuri told members of Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. The testimony comes amid an ongoing reckoning over a history of racism in the U.S.

California U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat, told the committee that Freedman have been denied services intended for tribal citizens, including housing assistance, COVID-19 vaccinations and federal stimulus funding, because some tribes do not include them as members.

“We must stand by the rights promised to Freedmen in the treaties that guaranteed those rights over a century ago,” Waters said.

Choctaw Nation attorney Michael Burrage said the nation does not recognize Freedmen as citizens, citing the Choctaw constitution that was adopted under a federal court order in 1983.

“We think the Choctaw Nation as a sovereign entity should be able to determine its memberships,” Burrage said. “Tribal membership is based on blood,” referring to the Certificate Degree of Indian Blood, or CDIB.

But Seminole Nation Assistant Chief Brian Thomas Palmer said the nation has recognized the right of Freedmen to become citizens since 1866.

“This short testimony to discuss select provisions (of the treaty) is a disservice to the Seminole and warrants a deeper conversation,” Palmer said.

In prepared comments to the committee, Palmer and Seminole Nation Chief Lewis Johnson said the tribe does not offer healthcare, life insurance, or the COVID-19 vaccine to tribal members because of a lack of funding. They said federal funding eligibility is determined by the funding agency, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

BIA Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland told the committee that the bureau relies on the tribes to determine tribal citizenship.

Among the tribes, only the Cherokee Nation has met its obligations regarding Freedmen citizenship, which came following a federal court ruling in 2017, Newland said.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the tribe chose not to appeal the ruling because of its own actions regarding the Freedmen, including denying them the right to vote in tribal elections.

“The enslavement of other human beings and the subsequent denial to them and their descendants of their basic rights is a stain on the Cherokee Nation, and it's a stain that must be lifted,” Hoskin said.

“Mr. Chairman, I offer an apology on behalf of the Cherokee Nation for these actions,” Hoskin told committee Chair Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat, of Hawaii.

Marilynn Vann, a Freedmen descendant and president of The Descendants of Freedmen of the Fives Tribes Association, called for congressional action to provide the descendants with funds from future appropriations to tribes, require the Interior Department register Freedmen descendants and to hold committee field hearings in Oklahoma to allow other descendants to attend.

Schatz said the goal of the committee is to “start a respectful dialogue ... and to educate the committee and the public" about the removal of Native Americans from their native lands in the southeastern U.S. and enslavement of Black people in the U.S. He did not describe the next steps.