Apr 25, 2024 - Politics & Policy

U.S. House members back Freedmen tribal recognition fight

Home of Muscogee (Creek) Freedmen in Oklahoma Territory, ca. 1900.

Home of Muscogee (Creek) Freedmen in Oklahoma Territory, ca. 1900. Photo: Corbis Historical via Getty Images

Thirteen U.S. House members are jumping in a fight to help Black descendants of enslaved people once owned by members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation get full tribal membership.

The big picture: Muscogee (Creek) Nation Freedmen are the latest group to seek full tribal membership amid a racial reckoning among Indigenous tribes that sometimes clashes with tribal sovereignty.

Zoom in: U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) led an effort earlier this month seeking permission to file an amicus brief in tribal court supporting Muscogee (Creek) Nation Freedmen.

  • The thirteen House representatives believe the tribe is wrongly using a 1941 letter from the solicitor of the Interior Department that concluded Creek Freedmen can be excluded from tribal membership, the filing says.
  • According to the filing, excluding them from membership would violate an 1866 treaty signed by the tribe with the U.S. government, which gives tribal citizenship to Creek Freedmen.
  • Muscogee (Creek) Nation court denied the amicus brief but a lawyer representing Creek Freedmen said it showed members of Congress are watching the case.

Catch up quick: A Muscogee (Creek) Nation District Court in September ruled in favor of citizenship for two Freedmen descendants, paving the way for other descendants to seek citizenship.

  • Rhonda Grayson and Jeffery Kennedy had sued the tribe's citizenship board for denying their applications.
  • Following the ruling, the tribe's Supreme Court issued a stay of enforcement of the District Court after an appeal from the tribe.

Background: Freedmen descendants say the tribe's Treaty of 1866 provides proof that descendants listed on the Creek Freedmen Roll are eligible for tribal citizenship.

  • It's part of a decades-long fight among the Freedmen descendants.

The other side: In a statement, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Attorney General Geri Wisner said the federally approved Muscogee (Creek) Constitution makes no provision to extend citizenship to anyone who is not Muscogee (Creek) by blood.

  • "The Muscogee (Creek) Nation has a diverse citizenry with a wide array of heritages, including African American, Spanish, Scottish and many more. But whatever else they may be, they qualify for citizenship because they are Muscogee (Creek) by blood."
  • Wisner said the matter before the Muscogee (Creek) Supreme Court is a straightforward administrative case and a lower court was wrong to extend membership to Creek Freedmen.

Between the lines: The Muscogee (Creek) Freedmen case highlights ongoing conflicts between centuries-old treaties — which the U.S. has violated repeatedly — and tribes' rights to determine who can be members.

What's next: Oral arguments in the tribe's Supreme Court are scheduled in July.

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