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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.
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.”