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'We're not going anywhere': Choctaw Freedmen cite history, ties to Tribal Nation in fight for citizenship

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Oklahoma Historical Society, Flickinger Collection
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Choctaw Freedmen outside the home of the late Caroline Prince near Oak Hill, Oklahoma in 1914.

After the death of George Floyd, Choctaw citizen Aimee Roberson attended a Black Lives Matter rally in Alpine, Texas, where she lives. She made a sign that read 'Black Lives Matter' — but in her native Choctaw language.

"So, what we came up with was...living Black people be held sacred," said Roberson.  

Attending rallies to support Black Lives Matter and those who are speaking out against police brutality is personal to Roberson. After doing some research on her Choctaw family history, she found out that her Choctaw ancestors enslaved people.

Before they were removed to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, the Five Tribes — including the Choctaw — lived in the Southeast, where it was common to practice chattel slavery. And during the removal, those enslaved by some Tribal citizens came with them.

"I want to be a part of making things right," said Roberson. "And, I want Black people, and especially Freedmen of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations, to know that they have friends within the tribe."

Many see Freedmen gaining citizenship into the Five Tribes as a civil rights issue in the state, right up there with reparations for Tulsa Race Massacre survivors. They believe the reconstruction treaties the Tribes signed with the U.S. government in 1866 give them that right.

Freedmen like Ean McCants want people to know about the contributions Freedmen made.

"We have a very long history with these tribes," said McCants, speaking over Zoom.

McCants is a Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen. His ancestors lived in Sandtown and Tatums — two all Black towns started by Chickasaw Freedmen before Oklahoma statehood.

To him, it's not so much about getting citizenship as it is about being seen.

"I understand why a lot of Freedmen would like treaty rights to be upheld, to be citizens of the tribe," said McCants. "But to me, it's deeper than that — I see a lot of erasure of our history from the history of the tribes."

He says his relatives lived in both worlds — one of them served in the Indian Home Guard during the Civil War and then later survived the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton wrote to KOSU that denying citizenship is not about race, it’s about tribal sovereignty. Dr. Blue Clarke, a Muscogee Nation citizen and a professor of Indigenous Law at Oklahoma City University, agrees.

"Tribes are sovereigns," said Clarke. "They have treaty relationships with the United States, which makes that relationship part of the foundational fabric of the U.S. government."

In this interview with Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton find out where the issue of admitting Freedmen as citizens stands and what's next.

In an open letter published in May, Chief Batton said he’s open to a discussion about Freedmen citizenship in the tribe, but says the issue would require a vote from citizens on a constitutional amendment.

Batton didn't do a traditional back and forth interview for this story, but answered some email questions about the issue.

When asked about treaty responsibilities of the tribal nation, Batton said, "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."

And to him, it's not up to the U.S. Government to tell the Choctaw Nation who should be a citizen or not.

"It's, again, an extremely difficult issue to solve easily...in a case of my own tribe, I also would like for them to end up as citizens, as members," said Clarke, who says it's up to citizens to vote on whether Freedmen should be let into the tribal nation.

For Choctaw citizen Alicia Nevaquaya, the issue has already been resolved. She said the Freedmen were adopted in as part of the tribe in 1885, and it's only within the last 50 years that they have not been recognized as citizens

"They should be fully let back into our tribe," Nevaquaya said.

In 1983, the Choctaw Nation added a "by-blood" requirement into the constitution that excluded many Choctaw Freedmen. Nevaquaya thinks that many Choctaws don't know the history of tribal enslavement and how important Freedmen are to the fabric of the tribal nation.

"To have them disenfranchised over the past 30 years has been a disappointment and a failure on the part of our tribal government systems," she said.

When you talk about sovereign nations, you’re essentially talking about two countries, just like the United States and France. And some Tribal governments believe that if they allow the United States government a say on one issue, it will chip away at other rights.

So, while McCants believes citizenship is a matter left up to sovereign nations who have the right to decide who is and who isn't a citizen. He believes the case of the Freedmen was decided by the treaty signed more than 150 years ago.

"Unlike African-Americans or people whose ancestors were enslaved to American citizens of the United States, our ancestors weren't freed by the Emancipation Proclamation or the 13th Amendment. They were freed by those treaties of 1866," said McCants.

"Tribal members participated enslavement," said McCants. "They participated in the civil war...and then afterwards they made the sovereign decision to give citizenship to talk about Freedmen and their descendants in perpetuity."

Citizens like Roberson agree — she wants Choctaw Freedmen like McCants to be part of the tribe. She says they helped rebuild the tribal nation after the Trail of Tears, and they should benefit—just like she and other Choctaws do.

"They served our people and our nation against their will," Roberson said. "And, while I'm very proud to be Choctaw, I'm deeply saddened by this dark chapter of our history."

She thinks that dark chapter should result in some kind of racial reckoning for the tribal nation. If the tribal nation won't do it, then she offered her own apology, on behalf of her own ancestors.

"It breaks my heart to know that they participated in this form of extreme oppression," Roberson said. "I would want them to know that I was sorry that my ancestors did that."

Other than the open letter that Batton wrote in May, there has been no movement on the issue of Freedmen citizenship. Batton said he wants to hold listening sessions and get people to talk and learn more about this history of slavery within the tribe. It's not clear when those will happen or if an amendment to the Choctaw Nation to allow Freedmen to be citizens is being discussed. The tribal nation held a general election in early July and Freedmen citizenship was not on the ballot

Nevaquaya said that discussion to let Freedmen be citizens isn't enough.

"I'll go a step further and say that we need to pay our Freedman brothers and sisters reparation for the years that they have not been a part of our tribal government and have lost out on federal government programs and services that were due to them," she says.

It's not clear how many Choctaw Nation citizens are in favor of Freedmen citizenship. Roberson says there are many perspectives, ranging from those who firmly believe Freedmen deserve citizenship to those who favor keeping citizenship requirements to proving blood quantum.

McCants said, regardless of whether he and other Choctaw Freedmen become citizens, he wants the Choctaw nation to acknowledge their role in enslavement.

"I hope Choctaw Nation really reconciles with their history around enslavement and highlighting the role and the labor and the presence of people of African descent in the nation, because we're not going anywhere."

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