Tribal Freedmen secure Senate hearing
Top goal: Citizenship through enforcement of treaty rights.
Happy Friday, Wiredians! And sorry for the delayed posting this week. I’ve had to have a couple of out-patient procedures over the past couple of months (nothing serious), so those have left me with more to balance than usual. Plus, we have four wild Indian kids scurrying around the Indigenous Wire headquarters this summer (my unofficial, off-the-books, unpaid interns), and they have basketball camps, gymnastics, piano lessons, and STEM courses to get to and from — so they’re doing less of the reporting and writing around here than I expected, especially while I’m laid up with broken bones. Ha.
Onto some good news for the descendants of the Freedmen of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” of Oklahoma — who are celebrating that they’re scheduled to get a hearing in D.C. before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on July 27 to describe their histories and ongoing problems with securing citizenship in their respective tribes.
These descendants have for years been asking the main congressional committee that oversees federal Indian affairs for a meeting, so this development is a major step forward, Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, tells Indigenous Wire.
“I wish to educate the senators on the history, especially the treaties, and inform them of the current status of the Freedmen,” Vann shares. “I also want to make suggestions to the senators about how we believe they can assist the Freedmen in getting enforcement of treaty rights and getting equity under the treaties.”
Equity here in large part means citizenship, but first who were the Freedmen in question? They were African-American peoples historically held as slaves by the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole tribal nations. Some of them mixed with tribal citizens, including through marriage, and some of them didn’t. Many of them were never listed on official U.S. tribal enrollment rolls, and some tribal and federal officials prevented them from being listed as tribal citizens.
For decades, tribal Freedmen and their descendants have argued that they should never have been excluded from their tribes. After all, they worked to make the tribes economically viable, they held deep social ties to their respective tribal communities, and they were an inseparable part of the cultural fabrics of these tribal nations in the post-colonial era. Many of them identify as African American as well as Native American, and they have deep respect for and belief in their respective tribal histories and cultures. The sin of slavery is intertwined with some tribal histories, and Freedmen descendants say this fact should never be forgotten or glossed over.
Further, descendants argue that they should receive citizenship in their respective tribal nations. The Cherokee Nation — currently the largest tribe, by population, in the country — agreed in 2021 after a series of years-long legal and political battles that it would allow descendants of its tribal Freedmen to enroll with full citizenship rights.
With four large Oklahoma tribes still not allowing their Freedmen to enroll, the issue remains intensely political in part because tribal governments say that due to their sovereignty, they should always get to determine who belongs.
In some part due to racism, some tribes have not wanted to enroll African-American peoples as being full citizens. Some tribes have also not wanted to share their monies (garnered from gaming, other tribal businesses and federal funding) and/or services, like healthcare, with African-American peoples. Some tribal citizens also fervently believe that to grant citizenship to Freedmen amounts to enrolling non-Indian peoples with no Indian blood — and if you do that, then what truly makes a tribe a tribe? Some have gone so far as to suggest that tribal Freedmen are “Pretendians” — people who pretend to be Indian to secure benefits of tribal citizenship.
The idea that tribal sovereignty is preventing African-American peoples who have a connection to these tribes is deeply troubling to many Freedmen descendants. Beyond their slavery-rooted historical ties to the tribes they claim, they also say treaties, especially those from 1866 involving American reconstruction, back up their views that they should be citizens, which is one major area that Vann says she plans to highlight at the upcoming Senate hearing.
The idea is also increasingly angering African-American members of the U.S. Congress, such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). As chair of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee, she presided over a memorable hearing last July in which she discussed H.R. 5195, a bill that would connect some federal funding to tribal compliance with the 1866 treaties in question.
“While many confuse this issue with tribal sovereignty, I want to be clear that this is not a tribal sovereignty issue; rather, it’s about honoring the treaty rights promised to the Freedmen and their descendants all those centuries ago,” Waters said at the time.
“[T]his is a fight that’s about fairness and equality,” she added. “For one minority group to discriminate against another minority group cannot stand.”
Marcia Fudge, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — who happens to be African American — has also been concerned about the Freedmen and tribal disenrollment issues in general during her tenure serving in the Biden administration and before that while serving in Congress alongside Waters.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), himself a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has additionally worked to politicize the issue: “Imagine the U.S. denying citizenship based on race today. Where is the outrage??” his spokesperson recently tweeted.
Tribal disenrollees from across the nation — of which there are about 10,000, according to federal sources — tend to pay close attention to policies involving tribal Freedmen, because they have long argued that tribal sovereignty should not usurp individual tribal human and civil rights related to citizenship.
Vann is generally seen as a strong representative for the Freedmen and for tribal disenrollees. At the same time, as a descendant of Cherokee Freedmen, she has already earned a place as a citizen in the nation to which she claims, and she now works for her tribe. Thus, some tribal Freedmen from the four other tribes that have not taken a similar path as Cherokee are hopeful that they will be well-represented at the hearing.
Eli Grayson, a Muscogee citizen with Freedmen ancestors, has raised that very issue in the press, saying that he is concerned that the five tribal governments have been given over a month to plan to attend the hearing, while tribal Freedmen descendants have been reportedly only given two weeks’ notice.
“I'm hoping the Senate would eventually hold a listening session in Oklahoma for the Freedmen in the near future,” Grayson recently said on social media. He’s also recommending all tribal Freedmen descendants reach out to the committee to share their input.
Vann echoes that idea, saying, “I will be requesting that the Senate hold a future hearing — especially a field hearing in order to hear additional Freedmen voices.”
Vann’s friend and classmate, meanwhile, is currently raising money for her trip to Washington via a GoFundMe campaign.
“We have asked for Senate hearings for almost twenty years, and the time has now come,” according to the campaign organizer. “Many senators know nothing of the Freedmen.”
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