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Seminole Nation
Seminole Nation Tribal Councilor LeEtta Sampson-Osborne. / September Dawn Bottoms for BuzzFeed News

SEMINOLE NATION – Seminole Nation Tribal Councilor LeEtta Sampson-Osborne’s family has mourned the loss of more than 20 relatives since March of 2020. Generations of Sampson-Osborne’s ancestors and loved ones are buried at her family’s original allotments. Many tribes, including the Seminole Nation, provide burial assistance to their people who are laid to rest on tribal land. But burial assistance is just one of many services the Seminole Nation has deemed unavailable to Seminole Natives whose ancestors were once enslaved by the tribe – Seminole Freedmen.

Sampson-Osborne represents the Caesar Bruner Band; just one of the tribe’s 14 bands. Of the 14, Seminole Freedmen are only enrolled into two; the Caesar Bruner Band and the Dosar Barkus Band. The original band members included the freed slaves of a Seminole Nation chief, Seminole Freedmen who walked the Trail of Tears and a highly respected Seminole warrior.

Despite a treaty promising them “all the rights of native citizens“, Seminole Freedmen have faced increasing levels of systemic racism over the years. The Seminole Nation has enshrined anti-Black racism into every level of government and community. It’s effectively segregated most Black Seminoles from non-Black Natives.

Seminole Nation uses Freedmen population for federal dollars

Like other federally recognized tribes, the Seminole Nation receives a significant amount of funding through federal grants programs. Recently, the tribe received almost $19 million in CARES Act funding, of which they’ve spent a reported 91% so far. Population size is a key number in the formula that decided how much money the tribe received. The Seminole Nation, no doubt, counted the Seminole Freedmen then.

This isn’t the first time the Seminole Nation has been taken to task over their discrimination towards Freedmen. It won’t be the last either. The Seminole Nation has even altered their constitution to exclude Freedmen in direct violation of their 1866 treaty with the United States.

As Sampson-Osborne said, “we’re only Seminoles to them when they’re in Washington D.C.. When they come home, we’re just Freedmen again.”

Seminole Freedmen segregated by their own tribe

And being “just Freedmen” has proven to be especially deadly during the last year. The Seminole Nation tries to justify the brazen segregation by over emphasizing the Freedmen are citizens, not members, of the tribe. As “non-members,” they don’t have access to health services including COVID-19 vaccine doses that were allocated specifically for Seminoles.

But this non-member designation is continued in direct contradiction to both federal and tribal law. Following a lawsuit brought by the Caesar Bruner and Dosar Barkus Bands in 1999, a federal court ruling stated, “Anyone who can trace his or her ancestry to the Dawes Rolls is deemed to be a member of the Seminole Nation. Each member of the Dosar Barkus and Bruner Bands is a member of the Seminole Nation, and those Bands are made up exclusively of individuals descended from persons enrolled on the Freedmen Roll.

News of the vaccine snub caught the attention of several media outlets in 2021. Seminole Nation Principal Chief issued the following statement in response to the articles:

seminole nation
The back of a Seminole Freedman ID card. It says that Freedmen only having voting rights. / Provided.

Seminole Chief denies racist policies

“The United States Indian Health Service is the entity in charge of administering Covid-19 vaccinations to the Seminole Nation, and it is the Nation’s understanding that such vaccine dissemination is being administered entirely consistent with federal law and policy in providing such vaccinations. Any allegation that the Seminole Nation is denying access of the Covid-19 vaccine to a group of people is entirely false.”

However, the Chief is lying. The Seminole Nation has denied Freedmen access to the COVID-19 vaccine through intentionally exclusionary policies. The tribe continues to issue Seminole Freedmen citizenship cards that classify them as non-members. And now, tribal councilors have been seen on Facebook discussing plans to sue Osborne-Sampson and others who have spoken out in the press in recent months.

Freedmen face this segregation while the tribe uses their band populations to increase the amount of federal funding they receive from the United States. And it’s happened multiple times. The tribe received $12.5 million in economic federal monies in 2016. Then, the non-Freedmen majority tribal council voted to exclude Freedmen from receiving funds made available to other Seminoles. It’s reminiscent of the racist American “separate, but equal” policy only without the Freedmen ever being equal.

Seminole Freedman taking the fight to federal court

Racism is prejudice plus power. Non-Black Seminoles have the power. And they are systemically discriminating against their fellow Seminoles simply because they happen to be descendants of the tribe’s former slaves.

The Seminole Freedmen plan to take the tribe back to federal court; a move that pains Councilor Osborne-Sampson. She said, “I don’t find any joy in this. I don’t want my tribe, my nation, to be dragged through court and the court of public opinion. But our people are dying and our kids are leaving because our tribe has put up red tape around every resource.” She continued, “they’re saying ‘No Freedmen Allowed.’ No healthcare. No COVID vaccine support or access to CARES Act funded programs. No burial assistance. Nothing! An elder in my family who is a first language speaker couldn’t even get a vaccine until it was opened up to ‘non-Natives.’ She speaks our language! She is a Seminole elder and she deserves better from her tribe.”

Once they raise the funds for their attorney’s retainer, the group will file a federal lawsuit to bring attention to the unlawful discrimination. They currently remain $3,000 shy of the $10,000 needed.

If you would like to donate to help the Seminole Freedmen in their pursuit of justice, you can donate via Venmo or CashApp: @LeEttaOsborneSampson. Or, you can send a check or money order, paid to attorney John Parris, to:

American Indian Foundation
P.O. Box 42452
Oklahoma City, OK 73123

Caesar Bruner Band
P.O. Box 300175
Oklahoma City, OK 73140

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