by Staff Writer Torrel Miles
Wilma Mankiller, the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, was once quoted as saying that “an Indian is an Indian regardless of the degree of Indian blood or which little government card they do or do not possess.” The Creek Freedmen, who have been fighting for Creek tribal recognition and acceptance for generations, would be inclined to agree. Possessing a legacy deeply ingrained with Oklahoma lands alongside the Five Civilized Indigenous Tribes, the Creek Freedmen are descendants of the thousands of Africans that the Creeks held in chattel slavery.
When President Andrew Jackson and the U.S. government forced Indigenous Americans westward in a fit of ethnic cleansing, Creek Freedmen descendants embarked upon the perilous journey of the Trail of Tears to the newly earmarked Indian Territory with their captors. The American Civil War erupted soon after their landing and Union battalions immediately fled the Indian Territories, which left the newly arrived tribes at the mercy of attacks by the already established Plains Indians. Although during the Civil War they had served as soldiers on both sides, all of the Five Civilized Tribes signed treaties with the Confederacy. When the Union claimed victory, Congress set about changing the way of life of the tribes yet again, this time to the benefit of the Black slaves they held.
A slew of new treaties were drawn up to replace invalid treaties the Five Civilized Tribes had signed with the Confederacy and the previous incarnation of the U.S. government. One treaty in particular was the 1866 U.S. treaty with the Creek Nation on which the Creek Freedmen base their argument. Article 2 of the 1866 treaty explicitly mentions the abolishment of slavery within the Creek tribe and gives tribal citizenship to the formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants. The Creek Freedmen are these descendants and still have not been fully recognized by the Creek tribal government as citizens.
In early September of this year, the New York Times covered Ron Graham’s fight for tribal citizenship at length. In the article, Graham, out of Okmulgee, Oklahoma, has spent the past 30 years “haunting tribal offices and genealogical archives, fighting for recognition that he is also a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.” Eli Grayson, a Muscogee Creek citizen who was interviewed for VOA News in an article dated August 2019, explained the nature of the Creek constitution coming into conflict with the theory of blood quantum. Historically, Blacks are no stranger to the negative societal effects of blood quantum. The “one drop rule” concept only required one Black ancestor for someone to be considered Black, which led to a litany of external and internal racial tensions that persist to this day. The Creek government drafted a new constitution in 1979, giving only those with one-quarter Muscogee Creek blood or more the ability to hold a political office within the tribe. As many generations of interracial marriages have diluted the once concentrated Creek racial bloodlines, this effectively cuts a majority of Creek and Creek Freedmen out of any political races and, therefore, any political power. In the VOA News article, Grayson notes that “more than 85 percent of the tribe has less than one-quarter blood.”
The true dilemma that the Creek Freedmen seem to face is the perception of blood quantum making a Creek citizen versus the perception of Creek tribal sovereignty. The Dawes Act of 1887 gave allotments of land to the citizens of the Five Civilized Tribes. To give easier allotment accessibility, the Dawes Rolls were created to document individual Indigenous citizens and their lineages. Blood quantums were noted in the Rolls and from the Rolls many tribes confirm the legitimacy of descendants applying for tribal citizenship. To some tribal leaders, these treaties are external nuisances that infringe on tribal sovereignty and self-governance.
After George Floyd’s murder in late May of 2020, Chief Gary Batton of the Choctaw Nation drafted a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi opposing Chairwoman Maxine Waters’ proposed provision to allow tribal citizenship to descendants of Choctaw Freedmen. If allowed, the U.S. government would have a hand in altering the Choctaw constitution. “The Freedman issue is a problem caused by the United States, not the Choctaw Nation… Congress should not be permitted to abuse its power by forcing the Choctaw Nation to fix America’s longstanding problems of systemic racism rooted in America’s enslavement of African Americans.” Chief Batton stated. Notably, the Choctaw tribe was not exempt from slave ownership and also owned thousands of Black slaves before and during their forced migration. Despite opposition, the Creek Freedmen’s fight is far from over. Creek Freedmen representatives, such as Ron Graham and Eli Grayson, continue to educate and rally support throughout Oklahoma and nationwide. For the Creek Freedmen, it is not when they will find their home, but when their home will find them.
Photo credit: Sam DeVenny/Smithsonian Magazine