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Muscogee Freedmen take step toward citizenship following tribal court ruling

Jeff Kennedy, a Muscogee Freedman. Kennedy's application for citizenship to the Muscogee Nation had previously been denied by the citizenship board in 2020. He and fellow Freedman Rhonda Grayson are asking the tribal nation's court for a do-over in the case.
Allison Herrera
Jeff Kennedy, a Muscogee Freedman. Kennedy's application for citizenship to the Muscogee Nation had previously been denied by the citizenship board in 2020. He and fellow Freedman Rhonda Grayson are asking the tribal nation's court for a do-over in the case.

This story has been updated to include comments from Damario Solomon-Simmons and Ron Graham.

The Muscogee Nation's Court ruled that Muscogee Freedmen descendants could be eligible for citizenship pending an approval from the tribal nation's Citizenship Board.

Rhonda Grayson and Jeffrey Kennedy can prove their Muscogee Freedmen ancestors going back generations. That's why it came as a shock to both of them when the Muscogee Nation Citizenship Board rejected their applications twice.

They appealed and earlier this year, they both argued their case before Muscogee Nation Judge Donette Mouser, saying the tribal nation's 1866 Reconstruction Treaty made them eligible. Mouser ruled in their favor.

The issue of citizenship for those who descend from formerly enslaved goes back to 1979 when a new constitution stated that for tribal membership, you must be a by-blood descendant of someone on the Dawes Rolls. Both Grayson and Jeffrey say they are.

Muscogee Nation issued a statement after the decision calling the decision deeply flawed and that they plan to appeal to the tribal nation's highest court.

"We respect the authority of our court but strongly disagree with Judge Mouser's deeply flawed reasoning in this matter," Muscogee Nation Attorney General Geri Wisner said.

She also said that the nation makes no provisions for citizenship for non-Creek people.

Attorneys for Grayson and Kennedy argued earlier this year that they should be citizens because of an 1866 treaty Muscogee Nation signed with the federal government. They argue the nation's 1979 constitution needs to reflect that.

They say the 1866 Reconstruction Treaty Muscogee Nation signed after the Civil War was never repealed and is still law. The attorneys also claim that Article II of that treaty states that Freedmen allows citizenship into the tribal nation.

During a press conference the day after the decision was handed down Damario Solomon- Simmons told reporters that he planned on calling Principal Chief David Hill of the Muscogee Nation to ask for a meeting.

"We hope that we can put this behind us and stop that adversarial relationship and we can come together as Creek Nation," Solomon-Simmons told a crowd of supporters.

"Let's reconcile and let's move forward as one nation, because we are friends. We love the Creek nation."

Jason Salsman, press secretary for the Muscogee Nation, told KOSU that Solomon-Simmons has not yet reached out to Chief Hill.

During the press conference at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Solomon-Simmons said that he, Grayson, Kennedy and others planned on going to the Muscogee Nation's citizenship office in Jenks and expected them to be enrolled as citizens.  

The process for citizenship takes time -even for those who are not involved in a court case. People turn in their applications, there is a review process and then people are notified if they can come and pick up their card. Grayson and Kennedy's process is different, since they have already submitted their application-it's still not an immediate granting of citizenship.

There has been a motion to stay this case Attorney General Geri Wisner is in the process of appealing it before the Muscogee Nation Supreme Court.

Ron Graham has been trying to get citizenship since 1983 but has been denied. He sees Judge Mouser's ruling as a new beginning and plans on applying again.

He's hopeful.

"This is a great decision-it's a win-win-for the Creek Nation and for the Creek Indians," Graham said.

He doesn't think it's wise for the Muscogee Nation to appeal this decision.

"What are they going to appeal?" Graham said.

"The United State's Supreme Court already stated that the treaty is still valid."

Graham is referring to the 1866 Reconstruction treaty that SCOTUS cited in their decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma.

In her decision, Judge Mouser cites the language of the 1866 treaty saying that, "For more than 100 years, the Nation followed Article II of the treaty by including those individuals listed on the Creek Freedmen roll and their descendents as tribal citizens. Not until its 1979 constitution did the Nation specify a blood quantum requirement for its citizenship," Mouser wrote.

Judge Mouser referred to the McGirt ruling in her brief-saying that if the tribal nation relies on the 1866 treaty to exercise sovereignty, then they should also apply it when considering citizenship for Freedmen descendants.

"The Nation has urged in McGirt — and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed — that the treaty is in fact intact and binding upon both the Nation and the United States, having never been abrogated in full or in part by Congress,"Mouser wrote. "To now assert that Article II of the treaty does not apply to the Nation would be disingenuous."

The paramount question in this case, Mouser determined was whether or not Article II of the 1866 treaty, which the Plaintiffs argued at length during their two day trial earlier this year is in conflict with the 1979 constitution instituted by then Principal Chief Claude Cox.

"...in article II of the 1866 Treaty, that qualifying Freedmen and their lineal descendents 'shall have and enjoy the rights and privileges of Native citizens'," Mouser wrote.

Judge Mouser wrote that she was reversing the decision made by the citizenship board and remanded it back to them and urged them to use guidance from the 1866 treaty in their final decision.

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