In late July, the U.S. Senate's Indian Affairs Committee held a meeting to find out what the Five Civilized Tribes—Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole, relocated via the Trail of Tears from the Southeast to what is now Oklahoma in the 1830s—were doing for the black descendants of slaves owned by their ancestors. Despite tribal membership policies, federal judges have ruled that treaty obligations require the tribes to admit blacks, even if they don’t have a drop of Indian blood. The tribes disagree; four of the five are resisting. As always, the issue comes down to money. The blacks and their backers want to raid the tribal treasuries for health and other benefits.
A little history is in order:
The Five Civilized Tribes practiced Southern-style slavery, and took their black slaves with them when they were relocated [How Native American Slaveholders Complicate the Trail of Tears Narrative, by Ryan P. Smith, Smithsonian magazine, March 6, 2018].
During the Civil War, the tribes’ loyalties were divided. More fought for the South than the North, and the Confederacy signed treaties with all five. The last Confederate general to surrender was Cherokee Confederate General Stand Watie, who surrendered two and a half months after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865.
After the war, the tribes signed the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties with the U.S. government. They lost not only their territories in what is now western Oklahoma, which was used to resettle Plains Tribes, but also their black slaves, who became known as Freedmen.
The treaties required the tribes to integrate the Freedmen as full members, but the tribes didn’t want to do that. Being an Indian is a matter of blood, as an Indian will tell you. And so 156 years later, the descendants of the Freedmen are not integrated into all five tribes.
The Cherokee Nation, for instance, passed an amendment to the tribe’s constitution that required Cherokee blood for tribal membership. If Freedmen descendants weren’t descended from Cherokee Indians, they couldn’t be members.
As with all matters in modern America, in stepped a federal judge, pursuant to a lawsuit from the Freedmen’s descendants. In 2011, District of Columbia District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr., a black Clinton appointee, ordered the Cherokees to accept the descendants as full members. At the time, VDARE.com’s late and lamented Comanche contributor, David Yeagley, argued that Indians, not federal judges, should determine tribal membership.
Six years later, the same court’s Judge Thomas F. Hogan, a white Reagan appointee, ruled likewise, and so the Cherokees surrendered and made the Freedmen’s descendants members [Freedmen win landmark ruling confirming right to Cherokee Nation citizenship, Indianz.com, August 30, 2017]. Last year, the Cherokee Supreme Court struck the reference to blood from the tribe’s constitution [Cherokee Nation Supreme Court issues decision that ‘by blood’ reference be stricken from Cherokee Nation Constitution, The One Feather, February 22, 2021].
At the hearing on July 27, 2022, the Senate heard from both sides [Oversight Hearing on “Select Provisions of the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties between the United States and Oklahoma Tribes,” Indian.Senate.gov].
The panelists were the chiefs or representatives of the five tribes and activist Marilyn Vann, right, president of the Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association and a member of the Cherokee tribe. She wants the Freedmen descendants integrated into the tribes.
If necessary, according to Vann, the federal government should deduct funds from tribal appropriations to finance programs for the Freedmen descendants. Similarly, the Obama Administration cut federal housing dollars to the Cherokees after they refused to comply with an agreement in 2008 that let the descendants remain tribal members until the courts settled the matter.
Also in attendance (though not a member of this committee) was black supremacist Democrat Representative Maxine Waters of California, who is concerned that the descendants might not get all the government benefits to which they’re “entitled.” Said Mad Maxine [30 minutes into the video]:
Despite the actions of the Cherokee to right the wrong inflicted on its Freedmen, the descendants of Freedmen of the other four tribes continue to be denied tribal citizenship and other basic rights associated with citizenship like equal access to federally funded affordable housing. My Committee even heard testimony last year that Freedmen have even been denied access to life-saving vaccines during the ongoing pandemic.
OK, but the descendants can certainly seek government services apart from tribal membership, as Waters herself reported. When the Seminole Freedmen Descendants didn’t receive tribal health benefits, the Biden administration offered them health care through the federal Indian Health Service. Problem solved?
Not so, Waters said, because that didn’t help the Freedmen descendants of the three non-cooperating tribes.
Chuck Hoskin, Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, who sounds like Ted Cruz when he talks, was proud to report that Cherokee Freedmen are being completely integrated into the tribe and apologized for the tribe’s previous actions.
But the Cherokee Nation is the largest Indian tribe in Oklahoma. It has a lot more resources.
Lewis Johnson, chief of the much-smaller Seminoles, and his red-haired, white-looking assistant chief Brian Thomas Palmer, offered a confusing explanation of their tribe’s position: The tribe holds to blood ancestry, and while Freedmen are citizens but not members, they are eligible to be in two of the tribe’s fourteen bands.
Besides, the tribe doesn’t have the funds to offer health care to anyone!
Written testimony explained:
While there has been some attention given to allegations that Seminole Freedmen do not have access to Tribal services such as healthcare, life insurance, and even doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, the reality is that the Seminole Nation does not offer these Tribal services.
The tribe doesn’t, but the federal government does. It operates an Indian health clinic in Wewoka, Oklahoma, where tribal headquarters is located. So what’s the problem?
The other three tribes—Creek, Chickasaw and Choctaw—adamantly say Freedmen descendants can’t be members unless they descend from an Indian of that particular tribe. Tribal membership is based upon blood. Mixed-race members are accepted, but membership requires proving descent from a registered tribal member on the Dawes Rolls, tribal lists compiled around the turn of the 19th-20th centuries.
“We are not Cherokee,” said Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri, ambassador of the Muscogee Creeks. Quoth Chaudhuri [1 hour, 3 minutes into the video]:
Let me be clear that the Muscogee Creek Nation is proud of our diverse citizenry. We have citizens who have mixed ancestry and are also white, African American, Irish, Hispanic, Mexican American, and many other heritages. I myself am Creek and Asian. But whatever else we may be, we are all Creek Indians by blood.
Chaudhuri is a surname from the Indian subcontinent. Chaudhuri is thus both an American Indian and an Asian Indian!
Stephen Greetham, the white lawyer representing the Chickasaws, made an important point. The 1866 treaty signed by the Chickasaw, Choctaw and U.S. government didn’t actually force those two tribes to accept the Freedmen. It stipulated that if they didn’t integrate the Freedmen, they would not receive compensation for the western land being ceded to the U.S. government.
The Chickasaws did not integrate Freedmen, and so the tribe was never compensated for the ceded land. The tribe preferred losing money to integrating the Freedmen.
Representing the Choctaw tribe was Michael Burrage, a white lawyer with a big beard. But he’s a tribal member, which means he has at least one ancestor on the Dawes roll.
Burrage put it this way:
Tribal membership is based on blood, not race. Today, Choctaw Nation’s tribal membership includes African Americans as well as those from other races. All members of our Tribe share one characteristic in common, they are all Choctaw by blood. They are all the lineal descendants of Choctaw Indians.
Burrage also observed that the federal government OK’d the tribe’s current constitution, ratified in 1983. “This Constitution,” explained Burrage, “limits tribal membership to Choctaws by blood and their lineal descendants.”
Burrage referred to previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions that affirmed that only the tribe, not the federal government, has the right to determine its membership. “This holding should be honored by all branches of the federal government today,” he declared.
Later, under questioning from Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, Burrage said unequivocally “the Choctaw Nation does not recognize the Freedmen” [1 hour, 42 minutes into the video].
Summary: Nothing was resolved at the hearing. Perhaps that’s because nothing is left to resolve. The 1866 agreement might have made sense in 1866, when both Indians and Freedmen actually lived on reservations controlled by the tribal governments. But, contra the absurd McGirt ruling, Oklahoma has no Indian reservations, which were abolished by statehood in 1907. The Freedmen descendants neither need nor deserve tribal membership.
Advocates for the descendants speak as if they can’t get welfare benefits, COVID shots or other health care, or anything else they want like any other black American. But that, of course, isn’t true. That raises the obvious question: Do Vann, Waters and others want the descendants to have permission to double dip on benefits—once from the tribe, once from Uncle Sam?
Whatever the answer, it’s unnecessary for the federal government to forcibly integrate Freedman descendants into the nonconforming four tribes. Even if the descendants can’t join the tribes, government services and entitlements are available to them. So is Affirmative Action.
The Indian tribes should be able to determine their own membership.
Come to think of it, so should the United States of America.
American citizen Allan Wall (email him) moved back to the U.S.A. in 2008 after many years residing in Mexico. Allan‘s wife is Mexican, and their two sons are bilingual. In 2005, Allan served a tour of duty in Iraq with the Texas Army National Guard. His VDARE.COM articles are archived here; his Mexidata.info articles are archived here; his News With Views columns are archived here; his US Inc blog items are here, and his website is here.