lawmaker to Native American tribes: grant citizenship to freedmen or lose funds for housing | Voice of America

WASHINGTON – The powerful chairman of the United States House Committee on Financial Services draws new attention to a long-standing controversy over the rights of freedmen, the direct descendants of African-American slaves who in the early years 1800, accompanied their Native American owners along the Trail of Tears to present-day Oklahoma.

On July 27, members of the Housing, Community Development and Insurance subcommittee met to discuss the re-authorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA), a 1996 statute. which provides federally recognized tribal governments with housing and community development funds, and means to ensure that the freed have access to them.

Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who is also a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, submitted a law Project which would force the government to withhold housing funds from any tribe violating 19th century treaties that gave the Freedmen tribal citizenship and associated rights.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development is expected to provide the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole nations with more than $ 62 million in NAHASDA funds this year.


The history of the Freedmen began in the early years of American independence.

Wave after wave of new settlers encroached on the so-called five tribes – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole, who, whether through pressure or outright deception, signed a series of treaties that chipped away at their land holdings in the southeastern states.

In his “Popular History of the United States,” historian Howard Zinn suggests that in the early 1800s the tribes found themselves surrounded by white settlers and that integration into white society seemed the only way to gain victory. “American goodwill”.

FILE – Lucinda Davis, who would be 89 at the time, sits on the porch of her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma on August 16, 1937. She was the former slave of a farmer from Muscogee Creek named Tuskaya -hiniha. (Library of Congress)

The tribes gradually assimilated into the plantation economy of the south, cultivating cotton and producing cloth; some members of the tribe followed the lead of the white plantation owners and used African slave labor.

In the 1830s, the government forced the Five Tribes to follow the brutal 1,000-mile Trail of Tears through Indian Territory (now Oklahoma); they brought their slaves with them.

Trails of Tears Route Map – showing the route taken to move Native Americans from the Southeastern United States to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) between 1836 and 1839. Wikipedia.

“Blacks on the trail of tears were like cattle,” said Eli Grayson, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation descended from both slaves and slave owners. “They were there for one purpose, and that was to help move these people – and rebuild and re-establish the tribes once they entered Oklahoma.”

At the start of the Civil War in 1861, the tribes signed treated with the South saying: “… the institution of slavery in the said nation is legal and has existed since time immemorial.

FILE – A Freedmen cabin is pictured in Okmulgee, Indian Territory, c. 1898-1901. (Courtesy – Oklahoma Historical Society)

“These tribes allied with the Confederate states – the same states that originally took their lands – because those states promised they would have the sovereign right to keep their slaves,” Grayson said.

This alliance canceled all previous treaties with the federal government. At the end of the war, in order to reestablish their relations with the United States, they were forced in 1866 to sign treated agreeing to abolish slavery and give freed people “all the rights and privileges of native citizens”.

Detail of article two of the Indian treaty ratified with the Creeks, signed in Washington, DC, on June 14, 1866. It calls on the freedmen to “enjoy all the rights and privileges of native citizens”. (National Archives)

Treaties, Grayson explained, do not bind tribes alone:

“The federal government, as a signatory to the treaty, also has an obligation to treat these people the same as Indigenous citizens, whether they are citizens of those who work or not,” he said.

The Choctaw and Muscogee (Creek) nations jointly signed and gave citizenship to the Freedmen, but in 1979 and 1983 respectively, rewrote their constitutions to limit citizenship to Indians “by blood”, thereby de-enlisting thousands of Freedmen descendants. .

An article published in the Chicago Tribune on September 18, 1865, reports on negotiations between the Five Tribes and the US government. The discussion focused on what to do about the thousands of tribal slaves. (Library of Congress)

The Seminole and Chickasaw Nations also gave citizenship to their former slaves, but denied them most of the rights and benefits of other tribesmen.

The Cherokee Nation gave citizenship to the Freedmen in July 1866, but in 2007, like the Muscogee and the Choctaw, rewrote their constitutions to restrict citizenship to Indians “by blood.”

After a long political and legal battle, a US district court ruled in 2017 that freed people should enjoy full tribal rights; in February 2021, the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation ruled delete the sentence “By the blood” of the constitution of the nation; Home Secretary Deb Haaland approved the new constitution in mid-May 2021, expressing hope that the other four tribes would also meet their “moral and legal obligations to the freed.”

FILE – In this April 23, 2021 file photo, Home Secretary Deb Haaland speaks during a White House press briefing in Washington. Haaland approved a new constitution for the Cherokee Nation on Wednesday, May 12, 2021 that guarantees citizenship …

The four tribes have been silent on the issue in recent weeks, but have previously expressed opposition to Waters’ efforts to tie Freedmen rights to housing credits.

In June 2020, Choctaw chef Gary Batton wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi voicing her objection to the federal government’s efforts to “subdue the sovereignty, self-governance and self-determination” of her tribe.

“The Freedman problem is a problem caused by the United States, not the Choctaw Nation,” he wrote. “Congress should not be allowed to abuse its power by forcing the Choctaw Nation to resolve long-standing problems of systemic racism in the United States rooted in America’s enslavement of African Americans. “

Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton speaks during a press conference with Chickasaw Nation Governor at the Oklahoma Heritage Center in Oklahoma City on August 11, 2016.

At the end of May, however, following Haaland’s statement, he and Muscogee (Creek) Nation Chief David Hill indicated that they were ready to open the controversy to discussion.

“Our stories, Native American, African American, are inextricably linked to American Europeans and to each other,” Batton wrote in an open letter to members of the tribe. “Let us not be bound by an artificial construct of those who sought to take our land, our culture and our dignity hundreds of years ago.”

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation still celebrates a recent Supreme Court victory in a case in which it cited 19th-century legislation for criminal jurisdiction in much of eastern Oklahoma.

Muscogee chief David Hill did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

Photograph of a freedman’s hut at Okmulgee, Indian Territory, c. 1898-1901. Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Jim Crow’s Legacy

Marilynn Vann is a descendant of the Cherokee Freedmen and the Cherokee Indians by blood. She believes the controversy is rooted in racism, which has a long history in Oklahoma.

“In its first years of Indian territory and in the first years of its statehood, Oklahoma was populated by whites from the Deep South, and they wanted to put blacks in their place,” said Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of freedmen of the Association of the five civilized tribes.

“After Oklahoma became a state, the first law it passed was the first Senate bill,” she said.

Approved on December 18, 1907, just four weeks after Oklahoma’s admission to the Union, the so-called coaches law ordered separate wagons and waiting rooms for the state’s white and black populations.

Between 1890 and 1957, Oklahoma spent 18 “Jim crow”Laws enforcing racial segregation, using terrorist tactics – including lynchings – to enforce them.

FILE – This photo provided by the Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa shows crowds of people watching the fires during the Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921.

Denied services

Descendants of freedmen in four of the five tribes are not allowed to vote or stand in tribal elections and are denied federal housing, health and education allowances.

In March, Buzzfeed NewIts reported that an Indian Health Service health clinic refused to grant several benefits to Seminole Freedmen COVID-19.

“The descendants of the Freedmen should share all the benefits and programs available to citizens of the Muscogee Nation,” said Rhonda Grayson, a member of the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band (MCIFB) who has worked closely with Rep. Waters and other members of Congress on this problem.

Waters participated in a virtual town hall meeting organized by the MCIFB at the end of March, giving freedmen from the five tribes the opportunity to influence the debate.

After hearing their complaints, Waters issued a stern message to the four tribes:

“If you want the government to recognize the treaties between you and the government, then you have to recognize the treaty that covers the descendants of slaves,” she said. “What is right is right.”

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