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Choctaw Nation Taking First Steps To Grant Citizenship To Freedmen

Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton
Choctaw Nation
Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton

Saying that "We see you. We hear you. We look forward to meaningful conversation regarding our shared past," Choctaw Chief Gary Batton announced on Thursday in an open letter on the Choctaw Nation website that he is considering an initiative to admit Choctaw Freedmen as citizens to the tribal nation.

Batton says changing the tribal citizenship requirements for the Choctaw Nation will require a constitutional amendment and a vote from tribal citizens.

Batton announced he will begin holding listening sessions involving Choctaw Freedmen, the Department of Interior, current tribal citizens, elected officials and membership department officials to get people to better understand the story of Choctaw Freedmen and get input from citizens.

Earlier this month, Deb Haaland, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, approved a new constitution for the Cherokee Nation that guarantees the rights of Cherokee Freedmen, who gained full citizenship in 2017.

No timeline has been set for the proposed listening sessions or a vote on a constitutional amendment.

While it's not known if this was a motivator for considering an initiative to allow Choctaw Freedmen into the tribal nation, Batton said he'd received a letter from the Federal Government in the last few months saying they would "withhold promised funding unless we changed our Constitution."

Protecting tribal sovereignty is one of his highest priorities and withholding funding was a threat to that sovereignty, Batton wrote in the letter

"The story of Choctaw Freedmen deserves our attention and thoughtful consideration within the framework of tribal self-governance," Batton wrote.

Choctaw Freedmen Keziah and Tirzah Anderson said they were not expecting the open letter from Batton, but were happy.

"It was just, in my opinion, a really great step forward and hopefully it will actually lead to something," said Tirzah Anderson.

Both sisters have ties to the Choctaw and the Chickasaw Nations. Their grandmother on their mother's side was Chickasaw and grew up in Chickasha.

Keziah and Tirzah were among a handful of Freedmen that met with staff of the newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland earlier this month. They discussed some of their concerns like gaining access to Indian Health Service care, housing and education and were encouraged.

"I think it's really great that he brought forward a way for citizenship rights to be considered within tribal procedures," Keziah Anderson said referring to Batton's comments about an initiative.

Torey Dolan, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation and fellow at the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University said this is the right move.

"I personally see them as kin and part of our communities who have been severely wronged," Dolan said.

"I think to make it right, they need to have a voice at the table and they need to direct what justice looks like towards them."

In June 2020, Batton wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking her to oppose efforts by Rep. Maxine Waters, the Chairwoman of the Committee on Financial Serivces, to withhold housing assistance to the Choctaw Nation until the tribal nation addressed the Freedmen issue.

In the letter, Batton wrote that he's interested in working with the federal government to make amends and "grant appropriate measures of redress to African Americans as well as Native Americans."

Batton wrote that Freedmen citizenship is a problem created by the U.S. government, not the tribal 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."

Citizenship in the Choctaw Nation is based on the Dawes Rolls, which came out of the Dawes Act that passed in 1887 has long been viewed as racist and in line with termination era policies aimed at splitting up Indigenous families and assimilating Native people into white society.

Batton believes that policy and the blood quantum requirement forced on tribal nations through these rolls has created the unresolved issues around Freedmen citizenship.

"I don't agree with how the Dawes rolls were conducted. And, I do agree that a lot of that was the federal government," Keziah Anderson said.

However, she and her sister Tirzah think that the Freedmen issue can and should be dealt with by the Choctaw Nation, who did own slaves. Freedmen walked the Trail of Tears along with thousands of other Choctaws when they were forcibly removed from their homelands in the southeast U.S.

Torey Dolan agrees. She's been in conversation with a number of Freedmen over the years about citizenship and their rights with the tribal nation. She thinks that the U.S. government is to blame for the system of blood quantum and for making tribal membership a racial issue as opposed to a political status.

"But, the fact remains that slavery was legal in the Choctaw Nation," said Dolan. "They built the Choctaw Nation's wealth in Oklahoma, so I believe that the Choctaw nation has its own sins to address."

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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