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Q&A: Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton On Freedmen Citizenship

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Choctaw Nation
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Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story used the word 'intention' when talking about Chief Batton's stance on the Freedmen issue. We've updated this story to clarify and instead use the word position.

In May 2021, Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton published an open letter on his blog about his position on admitting Freedmen descendants as citizens into the tribal nation. In this interview, find out where that issue stands and what's next.

Editor's Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Allison Herrera: In your open letter, you announced there would be some discussion among citizens, Freedmen descendants, leadership within the Choctaw nation and the federal government to talk about the Freedmen issue. When do you anticipate that happening?

Chief Gary Batton / Staff: Chief Batton has formed a committee to explore the issue. That committee is fielding all calls and inquiries related to this topic. We’re in an exploratory phase, to see what really has happened in our history and what has been documented.

AH: The reconstruction treaty allowed for Freedmen to be citizens. I've heard from several Choctaw citizens this changed in the 1980s. How is it that Freedmen are no longer part of the tribe, and when was this change made? Who made it?

GB: The Treaty of 1866, post-Civil War, was designed to grant an option or provide a pathway of either U.S. or Choctaw Nation citizenship to former Choctaw slaves. Historical analysis concludes that neither the U.S. government nor the Choctaw Nation fulfilled the Treaty of 1866 language in regard to Choctaw Freedmen and Choctaw citizenship. Citizenship for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is set by our constitution, which was ratified by a vote of the people in 1983 and approved by the Department of Interior. Article II Section I outlines the qualifications for membership as “Choctaw Indians by blood whose names appear on the final rolls of the Choctaw Nation approved pursuant to Section 2 of the Act of April 26, 1906 and their lineal descendants.” Our constitution cannot be amended without a vote of the people.

AH: In a letter I saw to House Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, you spoke about your disagreements with Congresswoman Maxine Waters. What is it that you are disagreeing about, and how does this involve the Freedmen issue?

GB: The Choctaw Nation’s letter of June 25, 2020 was written to address a proposal in the United States Congress that would violate the Choctaw's inherent sovereign right to define membership. The congressional proposal, if enacted, would force the Choctaw Nation to amend our constitution without the vote of the people and would withhold funding from our tribal members most in need.

AH: You said this is an issue that should be voted on and decided by the people. Some I've spoken with say the majority of Choctaw citizens want Freedmen to be part of the tribe, and say you have the power to make that change. What's your reaction to that?

GB: A chief does not have the power unilaterally to amend the Choctaw Constitution. A constitutional amendment can be brought forward to a vote of the people by two methods: 1) a proposal of Tribal Council requiring 8 affirmative votes and/or 2) by a petition containing the entire text of the amendment and signed by no less than 30 percent of the total number of qualified voters voting in the last Chief’s election.

AH: Other citizens of other tribal nations say that this is an issue of sovereignty. This is not an issue about race or that people in the tribal nation are racist for not allowing Freedmen into the tribe. Do you agree with that?

GB: I absolutely agree with this viewpoint. Race is not the issue. Our membership includes people of all races, multi-racial/ethnic Choctaws. The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that the ability to determine citizenship is a matter of inherent sovereignty for all tribal nations. It should be a grave concern to all tribal nations that this sovereign right is being threatened by those who would use the charged sociopolitical environment about racial issues in our country to score a short-term political or PR victory at a historic cost to tribal sovereignty, and which is sadly and falsely pitting one minority against another.

AH: What's the way forward here? Clearly, the events surrounding the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial have renewed a lot of calls for Freedmen to become citizens of the other four tribes, including yours. 

GB: The Choctaw Nation does not believe events like the Tulsa Race Massacre have any connection or relation to the Freedmen issue. Tragedies like the Tulsa Race Massacre are being inappropriately used and are completely unhelpful to the Freedmen conversation.

AH: When did you learn about the history of the Freedmen, and what was your reaction?

GB: I’m still learning, but I had first become familiar with the term Freedmen as a child, not fully understanding its historical meaning. I went to school with African Americans who were Choctaw and knew them personally. It was only as I matured and learned more of Choctaw history did I more fully understand the concerns of these former slaves’ families.

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