Tribes to Confront Bias Against Descendants of Enslaved People

With pressure growing from the Biden administration, two Native American tribes in Oklahoma have agreed to consider reversing their policies of denying citizenship to descendants of Black people who were enslaved by them before the Civil War.

The tribes, the Choctaw Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said they would take initial steps to address the long-running demands of the descendants that they be granted equal rights as tribal citizens, an issue that has split their communities and highlighted clashes over identity and racism among Native Americans.

But the two tribes stopped short of a commitment to grant citizenship to the Black descendants, who are known as Freedmen, instead saying they would open discussions about the issue. In February, the Cherokee Nation eliminated from its constitution language that based citizenship on being descended from “by blood” tribal members listed on a federal census, the biggest step by a tribe so far to resolve the issue.

Those tribes and others, which had originally inhabited the Southeast, purchased enslaved Black people as laborers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and had brought them along when they were forcibly relocated by the federal government in a deadly ordeal known as the “Trail of Tears.”

Funding in the CARES act distributed to tribal nations recently funded services exclusively available to “by blood” tribal citizens. Seminole Freedmen who applied were denied because of their limited citizenship in the Seminole Nation.

The Choctaw and Creek Freedmen would also be guaranteed civil and political rights within their nations, such as the ability to vote and run for tribal office.

In interviews, descendants of Freedmen described repeated appeals to the tribes for inclusion as equal citizens and repeated denials on the basis of their race.

“It’s heartbreaking. It really is heartbreaking,” the Rev. McKinley Rice, the senior pastor at St. Matthew Baptist Church in Okmulgee, Okla., and a Creek Freedmen, said. “In the day that we live in, and in the time that we live in, we was hoping and praying that racism and discrimination was, you know, gone.”

The letter from Mr. Batton marked a shift by the Choctaw Nation. Mr. Batton wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi nearly a year ago condemning efforts by Representative Maxine Waters, the chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, to compel the tribe to re-enroll its Freedmen as citizens by withholding federal funding.

“The Freedman issue is a problem caused by the United States, not the Choctaw Nation,” Mr. Batton said at the time, referring to “America’s enslavement of African Americans” while making no mention that the Choctaw Freedmen are descendants of people enslaved by the Choctaw Nation.

In an interview, Mr. Batton said the federal government played a role in facilitating racist policies like the “by blood” requirement for citizenship. He added that the Interior Department ultimately accepted the constitutional changes from the Native American nations that had expelled the Freedmen in violation of Reconstruction treaties.

Bill Anoatubby, the governor of the Chickasaw Nation, said in a statement responding to Ms. Haaland’s remarks that “Chickasaw citizenship is a matter of sovereignty and is clearly defined in the Chickasaw Constitution.”

The Seminole Nation did not respond to requests for comment.

LeEtta Osborne-Sampson, a Seminole Freedman who serves on the tribe’s governing council, said she did not expect the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma to follow suit voluntarily. Ms. Osborne-Sampson said the tribe’s position had long been that it would take a ruling by a higher court to compel them to allow Freedmen to be recognized as equal citizens.

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