Oklahoma tribes split over tribal status of former slaves’ descendants

Chuck Hoskin Jr. is chief of the Cherokee Nation, which has granted full citizenship to descendants of Freedmen. He supports the idea of a GAO report on the issue of Freedmen’s status among the Five Tribes, information most witnesses said is currently lacking. (Photo courtesy Senate Indian Affairs Committee)

Michael Burrage, general counsel of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said the federal government made tribal membership a political issue, and that it’s up to the government to find a solution “that does not infringe upon the rights of the Choctaw people or the integrity of our self-government.” (Photo courtesy Senate Indian Affairs Committee)

WASHINGTON – Oklahoma’s five largest tribes split Wednesday on the terms of treaties signed more than 150 years ago regarding their treatment of descendants of their former slaves, and on what those treaties require.

The hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee was the first to bring together federal officials, tribal representatives and descendants of the Freedmen, the former slaves of the five tribes who were offered varying levels of tribal rights after the Civil War, said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

“We will have a respectful dialogue, these issues are hard, we’re talking about two groups of people who have experienced terrible injustices as a result of the federal government’s actions,” Schatz, the committee chairman, said in opening remarks. “We want to … hear from the Freedmen’s representatives as well as the tribes and the Department of Interior to figure out what the path forward is, but it starts with respectful dialogue.”

The five tribes – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole – all signed treaties with the federal government after the Civil War that generally offered the rights and privileges of tribal citizens to the slaves that some tribal members had owned.

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But in recent years, critics say, tribes have denied citizenship to Freedmen’s descendants, blocking their access to federal housing and other benefits – even access to COVID-19 vaccines, one witness said.

A change in rhetoric was first seen by the Cherokee Nation in 2017 in response to a U.S. District Court ruling determining that descendants of Cherokee Freedmen were entitled to full citizenship in order to oblige with the 1866 treaty.

Unlike the Cherokees, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma grants partial citizenship to its Freedmen, who are represented in two of the 14 bands that comprise the tribe. Although granted limited citizenship, they are still not allowed to hold senior leadership positions and are denied certain services. These Freedmen were granted healthcare in October 2021 after reports of denying them COVID-19 vaccines.

But the Choctaw, Muscogee, Chickasaw and Seminole Nations all expressed frustration during the hearing with the government interfering in what they said are tribal affairs.

“It is the federal government, by placing tribal membership in a political arena, that initiated this Freedmen issue, not the Choctaw Nation,” said Michael Burrage, general counsel of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “If there is a problem, the government needs to find another solution, that does not infringe upon the rights of the Choctaw people or the integrity of our self-government.”

Burrage asked if a Senate hearing “where time is limited and personal and political concerns are on the table, (is) the proper place to adjudicate such important matters as tribal membership?”

Marilyn Vann, a Cherokee, and president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, said the government should be involved in guaranteeing tribal citizenship to slaves’ descendants. (Photo courtesy Senate Indian Affairs Committee)

“After surviving the cruelty of the Trail of Tears, the Dawes Act, the near termination of our tribal functions, and nearly two centuries of takings at the hands of the United States government, the Choctaw Nation deserves better than to have the core of its constitutional identity as a sovereign tribe threatened,” he said.

Many of the tribal representatives accused critics of trying to dictate tribal citizenship, an incursion on tribal sovereignty that “Congress has a trust duty to protect,” said Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri, ambassador of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

“Let me be clear that the Muscogee Creek Nation is proud of our diverse citizenry,” Chaudhuri said, before listing the many racial and ethnic groups represented in tribal rolls. “But the solution to this is not another colonial intervention by the United States.”

But Marilyn Vann, a member of the Cherokee Nation and president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, said the federal government needs to be involved.

“The Freedmen position is that the Freedmen still have their treaty rights in accordance with the treaties even if they are not tribally registered, they are to be treated the same as Indian tribal members in accordance to treaty language,” Vann testified. “It is the responsibility of the US government to enforce the treaty.”

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said before the hearing that it was part of “a long conversation happening among the tribes that is resolved in the Cherokee Nation that is not resolved in others.”

One option discussed at the hearing was the possibility of a Government Accountability Office study to determine the actual status of Freedmen’s descendants among the five tribes.

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“There is some conversation about a GAO study; there is conversation about how does the dialogue continue at this point,” Lankford said. “This has been ongoing dialogue obviously for more than 100 years since the 1860s and in the 1990s it was revised again.

“Quite frankly it is keeping the dialogue going and trying to get a resolution and there are multiple ways to try to get there, but a GAO study is one of those ways,” he said.

Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said would be helpful by bringing “all the current information in one place.”

“I think would be useful for members in Congress, I think it would be useful to the tribes, tribal leaders and I think it would be useful for the country to the extent there is interest in this subject,” Hoskin said.

“I think there should be interest in this subject because if you are interested in this subject what you’re really interested in is treaties and treaties ought to be examined and honored and this is really what the Freedmen issue is about,” he said.

Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, which has partnered with Cronkite News to expand coverage of Indigenous communities.