- By Jenna Kunze
A tribal judge for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma last week ruled that two lineal descendants of Black people who were enslaved by the tribe, known as Freedmen, are eligible for tribal citizenship.
“This is a powerful blow against anti-Black discrimination in this country,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney, Damario Solomon-Simmons, in a live streamed press conference on September 28. Solomon-Simmons himself is the descendant of a Creek Freedman; His great great great great grandfather, Cow-Tom, was one of five signatories of the Treaty of 1866 that ensured Creeks of African Descent tribal citizenship, including access to tribal services such as health care, education, housing assistance, and federal dollars, such as Covid-19 relief funding.
“This will change the lives of Black Creek Freedman throughout this country and particularly in this community. I’m talking about substantially providing healthcare, educational benefits, housing.”
Prior to the Civil War, the Muskogee (Creek) Nation practiced kinship slavery, where “slaves were often adopted into the owner’s clan where they participated in cultural ceremonies and spoke the Mvskoke language,” District Judge Denette Mouser wrote in her opinion. As the Civil War drew closer, the tribe was split; A portion of the Nation allied with the Confederacy and the other allied with the Union.
In 1866, after the war ended, the Five Oklahoma Tribes — including the Muscogee (Creek)— negotiated new treaties with the federal government, including the abolition of slavery and extended “all the rights and privileges of native citizens, including an equal interest in the soil and national funds” to all Freedmen.
But the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has been denying citizenship to Freedmen since it amended its constitution 44 years ago to only enroll a portion of the descendants of those counted in the 1900s federal census. The census separated Creeks into “Creek by Blood” and “Creek Freedmen,” records which were together known as the Dawes Final Rolls.
In 2020, Plaintiffs Rhonda Grayson and Jeff Kennedy sued the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s citizenship board for denying their applications, despite their individual direct lineage to Creek Freedmen listed on the Dawes Final Rolls.
On Sept. 27, District Judge for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Denette Mouser, reversed the citizenship board’s denial of Grayson and Kennedy’s applications, and asked the board to reconsider their applications.
“The nation cannot choose to select and rely on portions of the Treaty to which it points as evidence of the tribe’s intact reservation, and also negate the clear language entitling descendants of a segment of the Dawes Final Roll—the Creek Freedmen—from eligibility for citizenship,” Judge Mouser wrote, referencing the tribe’s reliance on the same Treaty to establish their reservation’s borders in the 2020 McGirt decision. “Either the treaty in its entirety is binding or none of it is.”
“I’m just so happy that our people can now enroll in the nation of our ancestor’s birth, the nation of our birth,” Rhonda Grayson said in a press conference last week.
The nation’s Attorney General Geri Wisner said in a statement to Native News Online that the tribe respects the authority of its court, but “strongly disagrees with Judge Mouser’s deeply flawed reasoning in this matter.”
“We will immediately be appealing this case to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Supreme Court,” Wisner wrote. As of October 2, the Nation filed a stay order, which temporarily pauses the case's proceedings while the Supreme Court considers the tribe’s motion to appeal. “The MCN Constitution, which we are duty-bound to follow, makes no provisions for citizenship for non-Creek individuals. We look forward to addressing this matter before our Nation’s highest court."
Today, only the Cherokee Nation grants full and equal citizenship to its Freedmen as citizens, following the federal court case in 2017.
In May 2021, the Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland approved the Cherokee Nation’s amended constitution, and encouraged all Oklahoma tribes “to take similar steps to meet their moral and legal obligations to the Freedmen."
Freedmen belonging to the three other Oklahoma tribes—Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw—say their tribal nations are breaking the treaties they signed in 1866 by denying them equal rights.
Seminole Freedmen are counted as tribal “citizens,” they are not considered “members” eligible for tribal services since the Seminole Nation —along with the rest of the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma—changed their constitution’s language to limit eligibility to those with Native bloodlines, effectively stripping citizenship from all Freedmen.
Policymakers as far away as California believe that last week’s ruling will pave the way for other Freedmen to seek a path to citizenship.
Kamilah Moore, California’s reparatory justice scholar and attorney and the former chair of the state’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, wrote on ‘X’ that “A win for Creek Freedmen is a win for all Native American freedmen, and even American freedmen!”
Muscogee (Creek) Freedman Ivory Vann was twice denied tribal citizenship in 2019, despite his father, grandfathers and generations before him being accepted as enrolled tribal members to the Nation.
On October 2, Vann again applied for a new tribal citizenship application alongside about ten other Creek Freedmen—this time with renewed hope. But the stay order prevented his application from moving forward, until the Oklahoma Supreme Court makes a decision.
“If the Supreme Court upholds what this tribal court judge said, we’ll be alright,” Vann told Native News Online. “But if they don’t, we’re gonna have to go the federal way.”
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