Gov. Stitt signals support for tribal Freedmen
Is he mad about losing McGirt, or does he truly care about African-American tribal descendants?
The communications director for Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, of Oklahoma, took some tribal officials by surprise this past weekend when she signaled that the governor supports the enrollment of African-American Freedmen into tribes of which they claim citizenship.
Stitt, despite being a Cherokee Nation citizen himself, has expressed harsh sentiments against tribes in his state after they achieved a U.S. Supreme Court victory in 2020 with the famous McGirt decision. That ruling found that tribes retain criminal jurisdiction on their treaty-based lands and that much of eastern Oklahoma is still Indian Country.
Stitt has unsuccessfully battled the case in several court cases, and he has since turned to courting public opinion, going so far as to argue that Martin Luther King Jr. would have opposed the McGirt decision on race-based grounds.
Carly Atchison, communications director for Stitt, this past weekend waded into an increasingly controversial tribal citizenship policy area that some tribes in Oklahoma have long claimed is their sovereign right — the decision of whether to include members of the Freedmen, the descendants of African Americans who were once held as slaves in various tribal nations.
“Writing laws intentionally to exclude Freedmen. Black men and women,” Atchison tweeted in quoting a recent Sustainable Journalism Foundation article that noted the Muscogee, Choctaw and Seminole nations have “amended their constitutions in ways that exclude Freedmen, and the Chickasaw Nation never enrolled Freedmen into the tribe at all.…"
"The Seminole Nation grants Freedmen only limited citizenship rights, and 3 of the other 5 largest Oklahoma tribes don’t recognize their Freedmen as citizens at all," Atchison went on to quote the article.
“Imagine the U.S. denying citizenship based on race today. Where is the outrage??” Atchison asked.
Several social media commenters responded to Atchison’s tweets, asking if she was taking this route because the governor was still angry that he lost the McGirt case.
“A representative of THIS state’s government criticizing the tribes’ civil rights record? Irony is truly dead…,” wrote one commenter, to which Achison replied: “[A]re you ready to defend tribal nations denying citizenship to Freedmen or did you just get a notification that I tweeted and wanted to throw an insult??”
“Not defending their actions—I know the history,” the commenter replied. “Just suspect the purported outrage has little to do with discrimination and everything to do with McGirt. But carry on with the attacks on the tribes—November will be here soon.”
With the obvious politics involved in the situation, the Choctaw & Chickasaw Freedmen Association, established last fall, soon weighed in, saying they support Atchison “[calling] out the racist mistreatment of Freedmen within their tribal nations due to their African ancestry.”
“The outrage is here,” they tweeted.
Marilyn Vann, the president of the Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes who played a large part in helping the Cherokee Nation last year decide to formally recognize Freedmen who were not enrolled in the tribe, told Indigenous Wire that she also supports Atchison’s tactics.
“The governor’s staff is right to point out the wrongs being perpetrated against Freedmen descendants,” Vann said. “It’s clear as day that some tribal leaders are not living up to treaty obligations. Certainly the feds should live up to theirs, but the tribes must do their part also.”
Vann additionally tied the situation back to McGirt.
“Also, the fact that the tribes are in violation of treaty provisions regarding Freedmen rights, such as article two of the Creek treaty, does not mean that this treaty violation has dissolved the reservations which are discussed in article three of the Creek treaty,” Vann said. “I am of course referring to the McGirt case.”
In other words, Vann does not wish to see Stitt try to say McGirt should be legally undermined over the Freedman issue.
Stitt’s staff, including Atchison, have not responded to requests for comment on whether the governor himself supports the enrollment of all Freedmen into the tribes they claim.
We’ve asked tribal leaders and Native legal experts to weigh in and will update as we hear more.
Indigenous Wire is a Native-owned, reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.