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Descendants of Black Creeks who’ve faced racial discrimination from the tribe of their ancestors are hoping for a historic victory. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit will take the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to their tribal court for reinstatement of their citizenship and rights on Thursday, Dec. 1 at 10 a.m. in front of Judge Denette Mouser.
For 43 years, Black Creek descendants, referred to as Creek Freedmen by the tribe, have fought tirelessly for their birthright to be recognized.
“That is what this case is about. That is what this issue is about,” Black Creek descendant and attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons said at a press conference on Wednesday at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District.
Unlike the vast majority of people of African descent freed from the bondage of American slavery in 1865, enslaved Africans of the Creek Nation weren’t released from servitude until a year later, with the signing of the Treaty of 1866.
But a century later, in 1979, the tribal nation broke that treaty when it excluded Black Creeks and their descendants from being recognized as citizens with full rights.
“We know our history, we know who we are. We know what we’re owed. And we’re coming for it,” attorney Solomon-Simmons said.
Black Creek descendants sue Muscogee (Creek) Nation
For hundreds of years, Black Creeks, free and enslaved, were important in the growth of the tribe, and many held influential positions, including warriors, chiefs, teachers, interpreters, town kings, senators, lawyers, judges and lighthorsemen (law enforcement).
Yet as the United States built and expanded the institution of chattel slavery, the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole) practiced slavery within their own jurisdictions.
In fact, free and enslaved Creeks of African descent traveled with the tribes on their forced death march to present-day Oklahoma, referred to as the Trail of Tears.
“Many people of African descent suffered the same losses as anyone else considered to be full blood or half blood Indian,” Black Creek descendant Rhonda Grayson said at Wednesday’s press conference.
Rhonda Grayson and Jeff Kennedy are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Muscogee (Creek) Nation demanding that citizenship of Black Creeks be fully reinstated.
“We are some of the most documented people in the nation.” “We don’t get this stuff by oral history, we get this information by documents,” Jeff Kennedy added.
After the end of the Civil War, the U.S. government signed a series of treaties in 1866 with the Five Tribes. Aside from drawing new land boundaries for the tribes, the treaties required that their tribal members of African descent be treated like any other tribal citizen.
Treaty of 1866
According to Article II of the 1866 Treaty with the Creeks:
“Persons of African descent…shall have and enjoy all the rights and privileges of native citizens, including an equal interest in the soil and national funds, and the laws of the said nation shall be equally binding upon and give equal protection to all such persons, and all others, of whatsoever race or color, who may be adopted as citizens or members of said tribe.”
Yet for the last 43 years the Muscogee Creek Nation has refused to honor that treaty with their melanin-rich relatives. Notably, the U.S. government has failed to intervene as well, even though it played a crucial role in creating the conditions for discrimination when it forced the tribes to add their names to the Dawes Roles, a list designating tribal enrollment.
In order to force the tribes to practice land ownership, making it easier to divide up land for non-tribal use, the U.S. government established the Dawes Commission in 1893, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Aside from forcing tribal members to add their names on the rolls, it segregated Black Creeks by placing them on “Creek Freedmen rolls.” Even Black Creeks who were Creek by blood were forced into the segregated status, making it easier for the tribe to eliminate them as citizens decades later.
“Each year our tax dollars go to the Creek Nation through federal funding, and then it’s denied to us. That is theft,” attorney Solomon-Simmons said. “You cannot put a price tag on taking someone’s heritage.”
Tribal sovereignty for who?
In 2021, the Supreme Court decision, McGirt v. State of Oklahoma, affirmed the Creek Treaty of 1866 still stands. While the Five Tribes argue that the decision affirms their tribal sovereignty on one hand, most of them ignore the treaty’s obligations to their Black citizens on the other hand. To date, only the Cherokee Nation has chosen to fully embrace the rights of their Black members, and only after a Supreme Court battle. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation has refused to follow suit.
“This is the same tribe that stood with the Confederacy to enslave Black people, my ancestors. And they are sitting at the table at the White House right now,” said Kristi Williams, a descendant of Tulsa Race Massacre survivors and a descendant of Black Creeks.
Williams referred to a White House Tribal Nations summit currently taking place this week. While the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is recognized as having a seat at that summit, Black Creeks continue to be ostracized.
Co-founders of Black Wall Street were Black Creeks
Notably, many of the founders of Black Wall Street in the Historic Greenwood District were Black Creeks, a fact not lost on the Justice for Black Creeks Coalition and their supporters.
Williams’ third-great grandfather served as a Justice for the Creek Nation’s Supreme Court. Generations later, she’s still fighting for citizenship in the tribe her ancestor helped build.
“No longer are we going to continue to carry the badges of slavery, because that is exactly what they’re forcing us to do,” Williams said on Wednesday. She wants President Biden to honor the words he uttered in Greenwood during the 100-Year Centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
“Only with truth can come healing and justice and repair,” Biden said last year.
“In Oklahoma we’re hiding justice” from survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, from women and children in mass graves, and from the truth about Black Creeks, Williams said.
Thursday’s court hearing will culminate decades of efforts to create a united Muscogee (Creek) Nation free from discrimination and apartheid.
For attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, it couldn’t be any more personal. As a descendant of a Black Creek who helped negotiate the 1866 treaty, he’s spent most of his legal career on the issue. On Thursday, it will come full circle as he asks Judge Denette Mouser to honor the treaty obligations with her ruling.
“Creek nation wouldn’t be here if it was not for the contribution of the Black Creeks,” he said.
This is very welcome news/ Unfortunately, it is only the Creek nation being sued while other tribes are actually much worse. Particularly at this time when American Indian leaders are all over the media condemning Littlefeather for appropriation and criticizing those with little Indian blood who act on behalf of tribal nations. While self-righteously asserting appropriation they completely ignore those families like mine with 75% tribal blood but are black and as a result are denied any recognition. Their baying at the discrimination against people of color is absent when faced with their own racism against Arkansas and Oklahoma’s significant black/indian populations who have been hurt by the racist hatred of the tribes towards others of color. SHAME
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