Oklahoma tribes testify at U.S. Senate hearing over Freedmen

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Jul. 28—Tribal leaders and ambassadors met in front of a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday to give their tribe's official stances regarding the citizenship of Freedmen.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held Wednesday an oversight hearing on "Select provision of the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties between the United States and Oklahoma Tribes."

Committee Chairman Sen. Brian Schatz, D- Hawaii, said the hearing was historic.

"For the first time in the history of the United States Senate, these sovereign signatory tribes, freedmen descendants, and this administration have the opportunity to present their views on the 1866 treaties for the record," Schatz said. "I understand and acknowledge that this is a difficult conversation, because this issue at its core involves injustices perpetuated by the U.S. government more than a century ago against both native Americans and African Americans."

Freedmen are the freed Black people that were enslaved by the Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Chickasaw Nations prior to the 1866 treaties that abolished slavery within the tribal nations and making the Freedmen citizens of the tribal nations.

Today, only two of the Five Tribes recognize Freedmen as citizens or members of their tribes, the Cherokee and the Seminole.

"Treaty obligations ought to mean something, you can't pick and choose which parts of a treaty to uphold," said Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. "We criticize the United States when it fails to live up to its treaty obligations yet we in Cherokee Nation have a responsibility to live up to ours."

A federal judge ruled in 2017 the descendants of enslaved people who were owned by members of the Cherokee Nation have citizenship rights with the tribe no appealing the decision.

Hoskin told the committee his tribe has enrolled almost 12,000 descendants of Freedmen into the tribe since 2017.

"The enslavement of other human beings and the subsequent denial to them and their descendants of their basic rights is a stain on the Cherokee Nation," Hoskin said. "It is a stain that must be lifted. I offer an apology on behalf of the Cherokee Nation on these actions."

Seminole Nation Chief Lewis Johnson said his tribe recognizes Freedmen as "citizens" and not "members" due to the language included in the 1866 treaty.

Seminole Freedmen do not qualify for the same services as members and can only vote. Seminole Freedman only began receiving health services in 2021 after the Indian Health Services directed that Freedmen citizens qualify for health services after the tribe denied COVID-19 vaccines to Freedmen.

Johnson quoted a paragraph from the treaty, which states "persons of African descent and blood who have no interest and property in the soil and no recognized civil rights shall be permitted to settle and may be adopted as citizens or members."

"Phrases and terms utilized in the treaty are not the words of the Seminole," Johnson said. "They are the words and desires of the federal government."

Jonodev Chaudhurt, an ambassador for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said his tribe has begun a process of developing historical, cultural, and legal research that will help tribal citizens "engage in a thoughtful and informed exploitation of this issue."

"Citizenship and issues involving non-Creek persons engendered deep conflicting emotions," Chaudhurt said. "Quite frankly our citizens stand on both sides of these issues. We're working towards healing. We are not only the descendants of select families that owned slaves, but also those who opposed slavery and incurred the targeted murderous wrath of the United States military. But the solution to this is not another colonial intervention by the United States."

Court proceedings regarding the Freedman issue are currently pending within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's court system.

Michael Burrage, the ambassador for the Choctaw Nation, said the tribe's decision to not recognize the Freedman is a tribal sovereignty issue and that the U.S. Supreme Court has held a tribe "has the exclusive authority to determine its membership."

"It is the federal government, by placing tribal membership in a political arena, that initiated this Freedman issue. Not the Choctaw Nation," Burrage said. "If there's a problem, the federal government needs to find another solution that does not infringe upon the rights of the Choctaw people or the integrity of our self-governance."

Stephen Greetham, special counsel for the Chickasaw Nation, said a federal judge ruled that Congress did not independently invest Freedmen with citizenship into the tribe and that the treaty of 1866 "did not impose an obligation of the tribe to do so" and that the tribe only provided for "potential citizenship."

Marilynn Vann, a Cherokee member and Freedmen descendant and president of The Descendants of Freedmen of the Fives Tribes Association, told the committee that Congress can assist the Freedmen in a number of ways.

"We ask congress to write legislation that includes Freedmen descendants in appropriations for new programs, reauthorization of old programs or entitlements that benefits the nations," Vann said.

Vann also requested field hearing to be held in Oklahoma by committee members and that federal reports on the Freedman treaty issued be investigated.

"These do not equate citizenship but would be a start," Vann said.

Contact Derrick James at djames@mcalesternews.com