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A Muscogee judge ruled in favor of two Black Muscogee (Creek) Freedmen seeking citizenship on Wednesday, in a historic decision that opens the door for reinstatement into the tribal nation of their ancestors.
Witnesses at the court hearing, an Indigenous affairs reporter for KOSU and an assistant to civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons confirmed the win for plaintiffs Rhonda Grayson and Jeff Kennedy. They sued the Muscogee Nation Citizenship Board for denying them.
“Having weighed all the facts and evidence presented by the parties, this court finds the acts of the Defendant in this matter have been contrary to the law and unsupported by the relevant and substantial evidence…,” Muscogee Nation District Judge Denette Mouser stated in her ruling on Wednesday.
Muscogee Nation District Judge sides with Black Creek Freedmen descendants
The ruling caps a years-long legal battle for recognition and rights that the nation deprived from Muscogee Freedmen when it cast them out in 1979.
In a statement following the ruling, attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons said it was more than just a legal proceeding. For him, it was personal.
“This case was about upholding the legacy of my fourth great-grandfather, Cow-Tom, as one of the five people to sign the Treaty and ensured Article 2 of the Treaty of 1866 that guaranteed Creeks of African Descent full citizenship,” Solomon-Simmons stated. “The tribal court’s decision will reinstate the rightful citizenship rights of Black Creek Freedmen today, and for future generations.”
“It’s important to me because it’s my birthright,” Freedmen plaintiff Rhonda Grayson told Muscogee Nation District Judge Denette Mouser during the April trial.
From slavery to citizenship
As one of the Five Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Creek) the Muscogee (Creek) Nation entered into a treaty with the U.S. government in 1866.
After enslaving Black people and at least partially aiding the Confederacy, the tribal nation signed an agreement known as the Treaty of 1866. Among other things, it asserted the sovereignty of the Muscogee Nation and forced them to grant full citizenship to their formerly enslaved kin.
Yet a generation later, when a U.S. government body known as the Dawes Commission moved to free up land for White settlement, it forced tribal nations to divide up their land into parcels. Tribal members were forced to sign their names onto what was known as the Dawes Roll in order to prove citizenship.
In a blatantly racist move, the government created a separate “Freedmen Roll” for anyone of African descent, whether they were Muscogee (Creek) by blood, marriage or formerly enslaved.
The move would cast a rippling effect on generations of Black Creek Freedmen a century later. When the Muscogee (Creek) Nation adopted a new constitution in 1979, it added a by-blood requirement for citizenship.
A new beginning
For decades since then, Black Creek Freedmen have been denied recognition and access to resources enjoyed by tribal citizens.
“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,” plaintiff Jeff Kennedy said at a rally in November 2022.
Notably, the Muscogee Nation Lighthorse Police at first responded to the heightened attention around the case with intimidation. At one hearing, The Black Wall Street Times observed officers refusing to allow many people, including elders who traveled thousands of miles, inside the court building.
In addition, the ruling shows Muscogee Nation District Judge Denette Mouser was willing to go against the nation’s own Attorney General, deciding the 1866 treaty is the supreme law of the land.
Historic trial: Black Creek Freedmen Citizenship
AG Wisner, who defended the Muscogee Nation Citizenship Board, had argued that tribal sovereignty gives the nation the right to rewrite citizenship requirments. Civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, who represented the plaintiffs, argued they can’t violate the 1866 treaty, which granted Freedmen and their descendants citizenship in perpetuity.
A bombshell moment in the trial occurred when a member of the Citizenship Board admitted to ignoring the 1866 treaty when considering citizenship for Black Muscogee (Creek) Freedmen.
In examining Citizenship Board member Leann Nicks, Solomon-Simmons highlighted the blatant racial and political discrimination at play.
“We don’t go by the Treaty of 1866,” Nicks testified. “We don’t consider this law.”
“So, you just chose not to follow this law?” Solomon-Simmons asked.
Muscogee Nation to appeal ruling
In a statement, Muscogee Nation AG Wisner called Judge Mouser’s ruling deeply flawed.
“We respect the authority of our court but strongly disagree with Judge Mouser’s deeply flawed reasoning in this matter,” AG Wisner said.
“We will immediately be appealing this case to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Supreme Court. The MCN Constitution, which we are duty-bound to follow, makes no provision for citizenship for non-Creek individuals. We look forward to addressing this matter before our nation’s highest court.”
A win for Black Creek Freedmen everywhere
Ultimately, Solomon-Simmons, whose Creek ancestor helped negotiate the 1866 treaty with the United States, closed by saying the nation’s violation of their own treaty opens the door for Oklahoma to violate the treaty as well.
“If anyone can just unilaterally decide we don’t want to follow that treaty law, what’s going to stop the state of Oklahoma doing that, the United States of America, which is notorious for doing that, or any of these other jurisdictions?” Solomon-Simmons told The Black Wall Street Times after the trial.
While members of the tribal nation remain sharply divided over the issue of their Freedmen kin, The Black Wall Street Times spoke with several by-blood citizens who expressed support reinstating citizenship.
Palmer Scott is a Muscogee citizen and licensed attorney.
“That’s what led me to law school to begin with. It’s been a journey for civil rights to fight for my brothers and sisters that haven’t exactly been availed the same entitlements that I have, including enrollment into our own tribe,” Scott said.
For 70-year-old Creek Freedmen descendant Paulette Trotman, citizenship for Black Creeks would change her entire family. The Black Wall Street Times spoke with her outside the Muscogee Nation Courthouse after the first day of the trial in April.
“I’d be so excited for my family and for all the Creek Freedmen out there,” Trotman said.
This is a developing story.