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FILE – In this March 7, 2019, file photo, House Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters, D-Calif., leads a hearing to review the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s mission to focus priority on consumers on Capitol Hill in Washington. After nearly three decades in Waters has become the highest-ranking African American woman in the country. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE – In this March 7, 2019, file photo, House Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters, D-Calif., leads a hearing to review the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s mission to focus priority on consumers on Capitol Hill in Washington. After nearly three decades in Waters has become the highest-ranking African American woman in the country. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The Choctaw and Muscogee Nations in Oklahoma have announced in recent weeks they’re considering changes to their constitutions that would allow descendants of Freedmen, Black people once enslaved by the Five Tribes, to become full tribal citizens. 

For descendants like Rhonda Grayson, it’s a hypocritical announcement that rings hollow, considering the Five Tribes that enslaved people of African descent, the Cherokee, Muscogee (formerly known as Muscogee Creek), Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole, already agreed to recognize Freedmen and their descendants as members when they signed treaties in 1866 with the U.S. government. Those specific treaties followed the Tribes’ participation in the Confederate rebellion and required the Tribes to give up land and recognize their formerly enslaved members as full tribal citizens.

Freedmen descendants seek federal intervention in Tribes’ discrimination

Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band Leader Rhonda Grayson is a descendant of America Cohee, an original enrollee of the MCN (Muscogee Nation), and her great grandmother’s roll number is #4661. While the Tribe has recently changed its name from Muscogee Creek to simply Muscogee, Freedmen descendants often refer to both names.

“We pursued the DOI [U.S. Dept. of the Interior] for months and successfully hosted a meeting with the team of  Deb Haaland, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, on May 13, 2021,” Rhonda Grayson told The Black Wall Street Times.

Consequently, the Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance recently announced it will convene for an in-person hearing entitled, “NAHASDA Reauthorization: Addressing Historic Disinvestment and the Ongoing Plight of the Freedmen in Native American Communities.” The hearing will take place on July 27 at 2:00 p.m. ET and marks the first official Congressional hearing on Freedmen in decades.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters (CA-43) chairs the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services, which is responsible for reauthorizing funding to Native communities.

“This is an issue that will be at the heart of the reauthorization, and I will be in charge of the reauthorization. We cannot afford to have discrimination that is practiced by anybody,” Rep. Waters said at a virtual meeting with Freedmen leaders and Tulsa attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons. 

Muscogee Citizen Eli Grayson calls BS

When it comes to the Choctaw and Muscogee (Creek) Tribes announcing they will “consider” looking into the issue, historian and Muscogee Citizen Eli Grayson says that’s “bullsh*t.”

“It’s just good PR,” Muscogee Citizen Eli Grayson said. “They have no intention of following through with that. There’s a lot of money at stake in Washington DC right now, and you got the Congressional Black Caucus at the center of every bit of that.”

Eli Grayson says that the Muscogee Nation has no intention of giving Freedmen tribal citizenship even though they are going against their own 1866 treaty post-Civil War.

“The fact that they have citizenship was determined by the Civil War and then the treaty followed in 1866,” Eli Grayson said. “Now why , 155 years later, do they tell the Freedmen ‘I don’t want you in the tribe?’ It’s already been resolved.”

Choctaw Freedmen descendant

Ean McCants is a Choctaw Freedman whose family is from Sandtown, a neighborhood in Oklahoma City that was started by Chickasaw Freedmen. A lot of Choctaw Freedmen are also Chickasaw Freedmen because their nations used to border each other.

“Regardless of if we are recognized by the Choctaw Nation or not, we’re still going to be Choctaw,” McCants said. “Our history, our culture has always been in the Choctaw Nation’s. It has existed nowhere else.” 

McCants has blood ties to his tribal ancestry, and his African ancestors have lived in the Chickasaw Nation since the 1700s. His ancestors also signed one of the removal treaties for the Choctaw Nation. On the Chickasaw Freedmen roll, his grandmother’s roll number is #915.

“When the Choctaw Nation wasn’t recognized by the U.S. government, or wasn’t functioning as a sovereign government, the people of the Choctaw Nation still saw themselves as Choctaw, even if the government didn’t see them as such,” McCants said. “I don’t understand why they think that it would be different for us when we have the same history information.” 

Unique to Freedmen of Indian Territory is the fact that no other group of Black people in this country were emancipated by treaties with Native nations. Moreover, while Juneteenth celebrates the freedom of the last group of Black people to learn about the end of the Civil War, Freedmen in Indian Territory were actually the last population of Black people to gain their freedom.

“The fact is that [Indian Territory] wasn’t a part of the United States, so when slavery ended in the United States, it didn’t apply to Indian country,” McCants said. “My ancestors in the Chickasaw Nation weren’t freed from slavery until like 1866, when those treaties were signed.”

“Jim Crow-like discrimination”

In February, the Cherokee Nation eliminated from its constitution language that based citizenship on being descended from “by blood” tribal members listed on the federal Dawes Roll.

Yet, even Native blood and tribal citizenship doesn’t guarantee tribal citizen benefits for these families. LeEtta Osborne-Sampson is a council representative with the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and a Freedmen descendant.

“Not one treaty is based on a blood clause,” Representative Osborne-Sampson said. 

“That is a Jim Crow move to block us from receiving anything from these tribes. It’s almost like your family is saying that you do not exist here. It is harder on a community when the community can’t stand together.” Osborne-Sampson added.

By doing this, Native tribes are breaking their own constitutions and treaties again. According to Eli Grayson, the nations illegally voted out Black Freedmen. The Muscogee voted Freedmen out in 1979 and Choctaw did the same in 1983.

“The only way you can change a treaty is that you have to go to Congress and the president and say ‘Listen, we want to change the treaty. We want some new agreements here,” Grayson said. “Guess what’s gonna happen? The Congressional Black Caucus is gonna say ‘You better get out of here.’”

Recently, the AP wrote an article titled, ‘The foundation of the wealth’: Why Black Wall Street boomed. It talks about how Black Freedmen and many other American Indian citizens rapidly lost land and money to unscrupulous or careless White guardians that were imposed upon them. 

By not recognizing Freedmen as tribal citizens, tribal nations are discriminating against their own people, in many cases, their own cousins.

“Just enroll them according to the treaty,” Eli Grayson said. “It’s just that simple.”

Freedmen descendants embark on battle for recognition and rights

Meanwhile, Rhonda Grayson shared that the descendants of African Creeks (Muscogee) who served in the House of Kings and House of Warriors can’t even secure a judge to hear their case to make ruling and are being refused citizenship in the Muscogee Nation. 

In 1867, the Muscogee people adopted a written constitution that established  a Principal Chief and a Second Chief, a judicial branch and a bicameral legislature composed of a House of Kings and a House of Warriors, according to the Muscogee Nation’s website.

They are being denied Cares Act and American Recovery Act funds and other government funded programs such as housing, Educational grants,  and funds received by the Creek Nation. 

Per the Treaty of 1866 African Creek (Muscogee) Freedmen “shall have and enjoy all the rights and privileges of native citizens, including an equal interest in the soil and national funds.”

These Freedmen should be included in all benefits and programs offered to the citizens of the Muscogee Nation, yet are being denied access despite the clear language within the text of the treaty.

Rhonda Grayson

According to Grayson, Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland said, “The Federal Government hears your advocacy.” 

He said he is not in the promising business, “but I want to tell you I will continue working on this issue. The department and administration will [work on the issue], and I want to make sure this is not the last conversation we have.” 

Muscogee Creek Freedmen Jeffrey Kennedy is a descendant of Ben Grayson #5329. The Muscogee Nation is the most documented tribe in the nation. They can go back five generations from the 1890s. 

We’ve always done tremendous things for our own tribes,” Kennedy said. 

“We served in the House of Kings, we served in the House of Warriors, we were Chiefs, we were interpreters, we were lawyers. We did it all for our nation and for them to turn around and just forget all of a sudden what we have done to bolster our own nation is disheartening.” Kennedy added.

Rep. Maxine Waters weighs withholding funding to tribes

Explaining her frustration with what she calls “stall tactics,” Rhonda Grayson condemned the Muscogee Nation’s refusal to speedily hear their case.

“There is a motion for summary judgment pending in the MCN (Muscogee Nation) court that the MCN refuses to appoint a judge. We have had two judges recuse themselves from the case,” Rhonda Grayson said.

It appears that while on the surface the Tribe has signaled interest in recognizing Freedmen descendants as full members, in the background the court has held off on deciding the issue for more than five months despite the District Court of MCN receiving the case as early as March 2020. 

“They are stalling for time because they know they have to look at the history; the history will uncover the truth of how our lives intertwined so closely with the MCN, and they know what the outcome will be: history and the Peace Treaty of 1866 are on our side,” Rhonda Grayson said.

For her part, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who chairs the committee overseeing the reauthorization of funding to Native communities, has no plans to stop fighting for the full rights and dignity of Freedmen descendants.

“To all of the tribes, if you want the government to recognize the treaties between you and the government, then you have to recognize the treaty that covers the descendants of the enslaved. What’s fair is fair. So if you don’t want to recognize this treaty that gives descendants of slaves the right to these services then maybe the government shouldn’t recognize the treaties that you enjoy that gives you these resources in the first place.”

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11 replies on “Congresswoman Maxine Waters warns Tribes to stop discriminating against Freedmen descendants”

  1. I want to thank you for bringing attention to this history and the legacy of Chickasaw and Choctaw Freedmen. As a descendant of both, I have three grandparents that were original Dawes Land Allotment enrollees; Paternal grandmother Elizabeth “Callie” Christian Dawes Card Choctaw Freedman #107, enrollment #2615; Paternal grandfather Mitchell L. Ligon Dawes Card Choctaw Freedman #106, enrollment #2608 and Maternal grandfather Joe Freeman, Dawes Card #1252, enrollment #4046.

    My family was among the First Families of Indian Territory and the state of Oklahoma. Many of them were part of the removal known as the “Trail of Tears” as enslaved people and yet, their history, legacy, heritage and identity has been “removed” from the pages of the Choctaw Nation as they continue to ignore the Treaty of 1866 that made my ancestors citizens of the Choctaw Nation.

    It is past time that Congress enforce the Supreme Law of the United States and if that means withholding funding from the Five Slave Holding Tribes that continue to discriminate on the basis of race, then that is their responsibility to uphold the laws of this country and the “equal rights” of all its citizens.

    Great grandson of:
    Bettie Love-Ligon Choctaw Freedwoman enrollment #2604
    Martha Taylor-Christian Choctaw Freedwoman enrollment #2613
    Ella Jackson-Freeman Choctaw Freedwoman enrollment #4043

    1. “The question whether Freedmen now citizens of various Nations of Oklahoma may be excluded by appropriate provisions in constitutions to be adopted by these Nations pursu to the Oklahoma Welfare Act must be answered in the affirmative. The Oklahoma Welfare Act represents a turning point in the organization of Indian Tribes. ……. Such a provision has the effect of dropping from tribal rolls those members who cannot satisfy the Indian-blood requirement. Such exclusion from membership does not interfere with any vested individual rights, such as title to allotted land, but does deprive Freedmen so excluded of benefits arising in the future out of tribal membership.” Nathan R. Margold, Solicitor, Opinions of the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior relating to Indian Affairs p. 1076-1106, October 9, 1949.

  2. Creek Chief Motey Kennard was my gggggreat grandfather, he two daughters Sarah and Susan Kennard, Sarah Kennard Grayson was my ggggrandmother, she died before enrollment, her daughter was Eliza Grayson, Creek freedmen #549, she was a mulatto, half indian and half black. Eliza Grayson had five children, Johnson, #550, Cinda, #551 Aurella,$552 Mabel #553, Sarah #554, by my GGGrandfather Robin Grayson. Cinda Grayson was my gggrandmother, her son was Frank James Young, creekfreedmen #5201.In closing, somebody need to tell the indian tribes, that money they get is coming from the tax payers, and DONT BELONG TO THEM. THIS SHZT MUST STOP.

  3. I believe the money the 5 Tribes receive from the US government is in continued payment for all the land lost through false pretenses. Furthermore, if one doesn’t have a drop of Native blood in them, why would a person want to be recognized as a person of a certain race that they’re not? Why is it that only after the Tribes start prospering we have ppl of different races all of a sudden want to be considered a member of a Tribe. Where was these ppl when it was the popular slogan “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” was in full effect? Didn’t want to be associated, why now? Money! That’s why! Ppl don’t care to be recognized as Native but they sure are anxious to have their hands in the cookie jar.

    1. Exactly.It’s ALL 4 NDN money.. NDN Housing.. NDN Medical Services.. NDN Commodities … freedman do NOT care about being Indigenous, Don’t care ..Our NDN true past,current &future belong to Native American Race.. WE are NDN’s Heritage&Culture.belong US.! Most Cherokee tribe members unhappy over the theft of their Cherokee Identity.Middle of he night Backroom dealhush hush) new boot licking Cherokee chief & leadership conduct & agree to secret deal with US Dept. Interior for lots of covid $$$ & sweet grants.. ALL to make (non NDN-blood) slave descendants.. NDN.. hocus pocus ur a NDN..

      Without said Tribe citizen vote.. (Citizens are suppose to vote on and pass Cherokee Constitutional changes.) these boot licking, power and money loving people passed secret after midnight agreement.. again without Citizens Approval &Vote. How’s it feel .. !If I a Native American.. with No provable ancestry of being African American.. claimed AA, only to obtain benefits,take opportunities, take monies medicine & medical services, educational scholarships, away from blood provable AA’s..
      Blacks would be pissed. Period. Native r TOO!
      US government can set up a special new Dept. African Americans-Non-Native American Tribal Members Roll# ..???? Blood Quantum’s REQUIRED for offspring to continue as eligible members of freedman it..
      Freedman Rural Ancestry Urban Department
      F.R.A.U.D…. ..
      urban welfare benefits

  4. First off, the Indigenous get $23 per person on healthcare from the federal government, and that’s the HIGHEST amount in any tribal area of government money. Any non Indigenous outside of tribal borders gets waayyyy more in fed assistance. So although any increase in money is huge news, you got to keep it in perspective. We all aren’t anywhere near caught up to the rest of the US population. You want Freedman tribal acceptance, then take the fed govt to task to actually do equal pay. Then resource sharing isn’t a threat. Even tribal members outside the borders don’t get assistance benefits because of this.
    2nd- Seminole did not own slaves but absorbed them and allowed coexistence and mutual protection. Please re-education yourself on the complex history of Freedmans and the Seminole tribe. Also realize that the split between Oklahoma and Florida Seminoles due to the Trail of Tears genocide meant different decisions made for the Freedmen with each.
    3rd- This is not a justification. I just an posing a question. If you had just lived your whole life hiding from and fighting against govt eradication, gotten captured, sent on a dead march watching 1/2 of your family die or left for dead along the way, make it to Oklahoma only to see another 1/4th of your family die of starvation and sickness, how much willpower would you have to fight against the us govt political back and forth designed to wipe out the Freedman? Would you have a hard talk with your former allies and tell them you can no longer keep the alliance because it’s all you have to keep your remaining family alive? Then, would you have the energy to re-engage with the Freedman as soon as you settle, the Govt begins to systematically remove your children to the point where 83% of your children have vanished, and those who come back are broken. Then you watch your grandchildren and great grandchildren taken?
    We only now are beginning to have the luxury of safety and energy to think outside of our family’s survival, even though child removal still continues today, and emancipation and civil rights never applied to us.

  5. With the Treaty of 1866 the federal government forced tribes to give up land, their government. What did the former slaves give up – nothing.
    They gained their freedom, the right to live on as much Choctaw land as they could cultivate to feed their families (all the while stating they did not want to be subject to Choctaw laws) and forty acres of land. After land allottment, the Freedmen were not restricted to forty acres, the Choctaws allowed them to continue to live on how much land they had cultivated.

  6. I am a descendant (Great grandson) of Creek Freedmen Harry Sells (fr#2516) and Jane Sells (2517). I appreciate and support the comments already made here by the above mentioned Freedmen descendants. My only addition: Indian Freedmen only want what was promised them. During the days of the 1866 treaty negotiations, one member of Creek Indian team was a Black Creek named Harry Island. Mr. Island was evidently a skilled interpreter/negotiator. He seemed to have been adament about making sure that whatever benefits came to the Creek Nation, he made sure that (and indications are there was resistance even then from the tribes) the Freedmen would receive the same benefits. We, the descendants, believe that everyone who needs it, should receive housing assistance. That includes Indian Freedmen. We’ve been fighting this battle for generations. The tribes have casino money in which they can afford retain legal reps and utilize delay tactics in the legal process. Freedmen do not have such an advantage which is why we need help from other sources.

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