Two descendants of Muscogee Freedmen are fighting for tribal citizenship in court. Here's what you need to know
Two descendants of Muscogee Freedmen, the people formerly enslaved by the tribal nation, are now fighting for citizenship.
Rhonda Grayson and Jeff Kennedy are in tribal court this week for a three-day trial over whether they qualify for citizenship in the tribal nation.
KOSU Indigenous Affairs reporter Allison Herrera spoke with Muscogee Nation citizen Angel Ellis, who is the director of the Mvskoke Media and has been covering this case. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Herrera: Can you fill our listeners in on the history of this case? Who are the plaintiffs, and when did they first file for citizenship within the Muscogee Nation?
Ellis: I think that they had a ruling in May of 2019, but it was a group of Freedmen, not one or two plaintiffs. It was like a larger group who had appealed and worked up to the D.C. Circuit. And then the judge ruled that they had not exhausted tribal remedy. And so now we see this case in court. I really started tracking this case in January.
Herrera: I want to go back to specifically Rhonda and Jeff in this case. I saw that from reading your coverage that they filed for citizenship in March of 2020. What did the citizenship office say to them and why?
Ellis: They were denied citizenship. They denied based on not being direct descendants from the Dawes Rolls, and the Dawes Rolls that the tribe is going by are specifically the ones identified in the Constitution that originated in the late 1970s.
Herrera: What are the citizenship laws for the nation? I understand that Freedmen were citizens of the tribe until 1979. What changed?
Ellis: The way the tribe recognizes citizenship is through direct lineage to a person who is on the rolls. And those rolls were basically the government accumulated rolls where the Natives, you know, in the area were signed up and their land was parceled out. And so if you're directly related to those descendants or to those ancestors who were on those rolls, then you can be considered for citizenship in the Muscogee nation. It's by blood descendants is what they're saying. And so that's where it disenfranchises some folks.
Herrera: I think that's a really important thing for listeners to understand about this case is about enslavement within the tribe and that not all tribal citizens enslaved people. Is that correct?
Ellis: Right. With the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma, there was a big fraction of the tribe-like two different large fractions. Actually, some had slave ownership as a practice and some did not. And some folks were completely assimilated, had Black Creeks in their family, and some did not. And you actually see that the Civil War era in the Muscogee Creek Nation is a very ugly time because at one point there were the Muscogee Creek people fighting each other about this very topic.
Herrera: What happens next? What can we expect during this three day trial?
Ellis: A strategy could be to make this more high profile that you subpoena like the chief or someone like that who doesn't necessarily decide citizenship. But it gets the you know, it gets the attention more. And I think that that's part of the strategy here. I think that this is almost an advocacy case in that sense, because it reaches for that higher profile accountability. I think that ultimately you'll see they'll work their way through district court. If they are denied in district court, they can appeal to the Muscogee Creek Nation Supreme Court if the Muscogee Creek Nation Supreme Court doesn't give them what they're asking, then they can appeal to the federal level.
To see more coverage from Angel Ellis at Mvskoke Media, visit their website.