Tribes share Freedmen views with senate committee

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 08/02/2022, 7:14 PM
Edited: 08/02/2022, 8:35 PM

(NATIONAL) A recent oversight hearing into the status of Oklahoma Freedmen descendants showed much disagreement remains more than 150 years after the 1866 treaties were signed.  

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held the “Oversight Hearing on Select Provisions of the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties Between the United States and Oklahoma Tribes” in Washington last week. 

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) said the purpose of the hearing was to provide the opportunity for the Cherokee Nation, Seminole Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation, Muscogee Creek Nation, Freedmen descendants, and the administration to present their views on the 1866 Treaties for the record. 

“It is emotionally charged for many, and for good reason,” Schatz said. “Yearslong litigation and disagreement over the citizenship status of Freedmen descendants among the Five Treaty Tribes has divided communities, and even divided individual families. But disagreements cannot get resolved in silence.”

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, (D-Calif.) said all Freedmen descendants need to be provided equal access to federally funded affordable housing and medical care but have been denied both by tribal nations in Oklahoma.  

“This pandemic has made clear that the ongoing discrimination of the Freedmen descendants can literally mean the difference between life and death,” Waters said. 

Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said their department defers to the tribes for confirmation on who is and who is not a citizen of their nation. 

“Tribes have inherent authority to determine who qualifies as a tribal citizen,” Newland said. “And as sovereign parties to treaties, tribes have an important role to play in interpreting those treaties with the United States. However, as Secretary Haaland stated in May 2021, the Department encourages Tribes to take steps to meet their moral and legal obligations to the Freedmen.”  

The Cherokee Nation has been the only one of the Five Treaty Tribes to grant citizenship to Freedmen descendants following years of court battles. 


Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. was the first to speak on behalf of the tribes at Wednesday’s hearing. 

“For far too long, Cherokee Nation failed to uphold a solemn promise made to the Cherokee Freedmen more than 156 years ago,” Hoskin said. 

Hoskin said the Cherokee Nation is a better nation for having recognized full and equal citizenship of Freedmen descendants. 

“I can tell you that we are a nation that keeps its word,” Hoskin said.

There is no one treaty for the Five 1866 Treaty Tribes. Instead, the Cherokee Nation, Seminole Nation, and Muscogee Creek Nation each have their own 1866 treaty. The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations share a treaty.  

Seminole Nation Chief Lewis J. Johnson said their 1866 treaty was written to favor the United States government, and the US never fulfilled their obligations.

Johnson said those issues, such as a lack of payment for more than 2 million acres of land, take precedence over the Freedmen issue. 

“This short testimony to discuss select provisions is a disservice to the Seminole and warrants a deeper conversation,” Seminole Nation Assistant Chief Brian Thomas Palmer said. “Grossly negligent oversights of the treaty agreements still occur beyond the McGirt case.” 

Palmer said their treaty allows for Freedmen to be introduced as citizens or members, and it was the Dawe’s Commissioners who categorized Freedmen and Seminoles separately and introduced the concept of blood quantum, not the tribes. 

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General Counsel for the Choctaw Nation Michael Burrage echoed that sentiment during his testimony, saying the Freedmen issue as it relates to the Choctaw Nation has nothing to do with race. 

“Today the Choctaw Tribal members includes African Americans, as well as those from other races,” Burrage said. “All members of our tribe share one characteristic in common. They are Choctaw by blood and they are all Indian descendants of Choctaw Indians.” 

Burrage also cited the Constitution of the Choctaw Nation, ratified by its voters and approved by the federal government in 1983, which limits membership to Choctaw by blood and their lineal descendants. 

“It is the federal government, by placing tribal membership in the political arena, that initiated this Freedmen issue, not the Choctaw Nation,” Burrage said. “If there is 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.” 

Muscogee Creek Nation Ambassador Jonodev Chaudhuri opened his testimony by directing attention away from the Freedmen issue and highlighting the issue of the Supreme Court’s recent Castro-Huerta ruling- a decision he called an attack on the sovereignty of all tribal nations. 

“Sovereignty was upheld with McGirt but recently the court chose to abdicate it to placate Oklahoma politicians,” Chaudhuri said. 

Chaudhuri brought his testimony back to the division between Upper Creeks and Lower Creeks before the 1866 Treaty.

The Lower Creeks chose to assimilate. The Upper Creeks, who were anti-slavery, resisted.  

“Instead of allowing the conflict of Creek Nation to play out through our own internal democratic processes, the United States intervened and dispatched General Andrew Jackson to exterminate the Upper Creeks,” Chaudhuri said. “The United States’s goal was nothing less than complete annihilation. In eight months of massacres, the United States burned nearly every Upper Creek home and murdered thousands of men, women and children.” 

Chaudhuri said any decision regarding the Freedmen should not be one imposed by the Federal Government, but from the nation in its own time.  

“To that end, we’ve begun a process at Muscogee Creek Nation of developing historical, cultural, and legal research that will help our citizens engage in a thoughtful and formed exploration of this issue as they exercise their sovereign right to determine the future of the Muscogee Creek Nation,” Chaudhuri said.  

Chickasaw Nation Senior Counsel Stephen Greetham said human chattel slavery is a stain on history, as is Jim Crow. 

Greetham also said the Chickasaw Nation’s Treaty of 1866 did not require the Chickasaw Nation to accept the Freedmen as citizens. Instead, it provided federal compensation dependent on the nation’s choosing to extend citizenship to freed persons. 

“The Chickasaw people deliberated and chose not to extend citizenship,” Greetham said. “In doing so, the Chickasaw Nation expressly relinquished any claim to compensation for the lands the United States took.” 

Descendants of Freedmen of the Fives Tribes Association President Marilyn Vann, a Cherokee Citizen and Freedmen descendant, was the only Freedmen descendant who provided testimony at the hearing. 

Vann said the Five Treaty Tribes allied with the Confederate states to protect Black chattel slavery, and the effects of those decisions still require remediation. 

“Many descendants today need services the same as their by-blood relatives,” Vann said. “Poverty began of the Freedmen during slavery. Later, Freedmen suffered from race massacres, segregation, and red lining.” 

Vann said tribal politicians run on anti-Freedmen campaigns and Freedmen citizens are being denied lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines. 

She said history has proven the tribes will not change without congressional and federal intervention, and asked Congress to write legislation that includes Freedmen descendants and Freedmen appropriations. 

Vann also asked that the Department of Interior develop a system for registering Freedmen descendants, hold more listening sessions, and conduct more investigations into the Freedmen issues. 

Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said it is unclear what administrative authorities the United States has in regard to the Freedmen. 

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. said the time has come for everyone to resolve their suppressive histories. 

“We have to look in the mirror and we have to recognize that we’ve done the same.” Hoskin said. “Embracing Freedmen history, going into communities where many Freedmen descendants live, for me as chief. I think has made me a better chief. It has exposed me to some of the needs in that community that we need to work to meet.” 

U.S. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) attended the hearing and inquired about the information available on each tribe’s Freedmen descendants. 

Lankford also asked Newland if they are developing any legislative responses to McGirt or Castro-Huerta, so his fellow Oklahomans could know about it. 

Castro-Huerta ruling continues a legacy of broken promises to Native American communities

Newland told him they were providing technical assistance in response to Castro-Huerta. 

In conclusion, Schatz said they were all in this together due to policies of the US government that pitted African Americans and Native Americans against each other and acknowledged people would be leaving the hearing dissatisfied. 

“I consider this a success,” Schatz said. “Because we aired it out. And people were heard. And I think it is important to move forward. But I think it is important to move forward carefully.”  

Schatz said the hearing record will be open for one month to allow for additional views to be submitted. 

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