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Freedmen Ask Congress To Withhold Housing Assistance Money Until Tribes Address Citizenship

Freedmen descendants testified before the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services this week.
Freedmen descendants testified before the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services this week.

Members of the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services heard from Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., Cherokee Nation citizen Marilyn Vann and others on Tuesday about the reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance Self Determination Act, or NAHASDA. Both Hoskin Jr. and Vann testified about the need for Freedmen descendants to be included in the new bill.

Freedmen are descendants of former slaves held by some, not all, citizens of the Five Tribes. So far, only the Cherokee Nation has granted Freedmen descendants citizenship based on language in their 1866 treaty.

The other four tribal nations — Seminole Nation, Muscogee Nation, Chickasaw Nation and Choctaw Nation — have not yet made Freedmen descendants citizens.

Each treaty the Five Tribes signed after reconstruction is different and was signed under different circumstances. Slavery was an institution imposed on tribal nations by the United States government, and some factions within the Muscogee Nation opposed this institution. They were called the Loyal Creeks.

NAHASDA is vital to housing security for tribal citizens, as it provides millions of dollars to tribal communities. Chris Kolerok, the Director of Public Policy & Government Affairs at Cook Inlet Housing Authority, testified to that fact on Tuesday. He explained that some people in Alaska Native villages are living in cramped spaces, making it difficult for people to sleep and children to get their schoolwork done. They need that money to improve their quality of life.

That's why Vann testified in front of the committee — to make sure Freedmen descendants like her can benefit from the Act too.

"The tribal governments receive monies for the housing programs," Vann said in front of the committee. "But, the majority of Freedmen are excluded. I ask you to include the treaty obligation language in the final bill and support its passage in the full House."

Vann said many Freedmen descendants are living in poverty and need housing and rental assistance that NAHASDA provides to citizens

LeEtta Osborne-Sampson is the Band Chief for the Cesar Brunner band of the Seminole Nation. She claims the Seminole Nation counts her and other Freedmen when asking for NAHASDA money, but they don't get any of the benefits. She wants the committee to add explicit language to NAHASDA saying Freedmen are entitled to the housing benefits.

If the Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Muscogee Nations don’t address the Freedmen issue, Osborne-Sampson and Vann want the federal government to withhold NAHASDA money until the tribes take action.

Seminole Nation's communications director Robert Whitekiller wrote to KOSU with this statement in response to the hearing.

"The Seminole Nation is assessing the situation regarding the recent NAHASDA reauthorization hearing on July 27th, 2021. It should be noted that each tribal nation’s treaty is individually distinct. One size does not fit all. One nation does not speak for the whole," the statement read.

There is precedent for withholding federal dollars because of the Freedmen issue.

In 2007, Cherokee Nation had its NAHASDA money withheld after a constitutional amendment was passed that limited citizenship into the tribal nation to, "Cherokee, Shawnee or Delaware by blood."

That was in the middle of a lengthy legal battle where Vann fought for her citizenship in the Tribe. It concluded in 2017 when the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Cherokee Nation v. Nash, and Cherokee Freedmen were granted citizenship.

Hoskin Jr. told members of the committee he doesn't want them to withhold NAHASDA money over the Freedmen citizenship issue.

"I don't believe Congress should condition federal housing policy and dollars on this type of public policy end," said Hoskin Jr. "I think it breeds antipathy. I don't think it breeds understanding."

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Provided
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. visits with U.S. House Committee on Financial Services Chair Rep. Maxine Waters after Tuesday's hearing.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the chairwoman of the committee, commended Hoskin Jr. for granting citizenship to Freedmen descendants and removing barriers, so Freedmen can enjoy full rights in the tribal nation.

At the hearing, Hoskin Jr. apologized on behalf of the Cherokee Nation for their legacy of slave ownership, saying it was a stain on the tribal nation's history.

Earlier this year, the Cherokee Nation removed the words "by blood" from its constitution after Vann's candidacy for a seat on the tribal council was challenged.

"While it took decades of litigation, I'm pleased that Chief Hoskin is leading the Cherokee Nation to honor the rights of Cherokee Freedmen. Other tribes must follow suit," Waters said.

"We criticize the United States when it fails to live up to its treaty obligations," Hoskin Jr. testified in front of the committee. "Yet we have the same responsibility. So, for the Cherokee Nation, the issue of Freedmen citizenship was really settled 155 years ago in the treaty that we agreed to that the Senate ratified and that the President of the United States signed."

It’s been a long time since Congress discussed NAHASDA.

The act was passed in 1996, but it hasn't been officially reauthorized since 2008. This week’s hearing was the first to discuss the issue in 14 year, but it follows a string of new developments around the Freedmen issue.

In May 2021, the Choctaw and the Muscogee Nation issued statements about the Freedmen issue, saying it’s something they and their citizens intend to resolve.

"This is a challenging issue, with implications that cut to the core of self-determination and will require a thoughtful conversation among our citizenry," a statement from the Muscogee Nation said.

KOSU reached out to Muscogee Nation for a response to this week's hearing. They issued a written statement.

“Our people, our Nation, and our identity long predate the United States. Many of our citizens feel that identity is at the heart of this issue," read the statement. "The systematic abuse of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans in the United States creates both a complicated history and a present challenge. Our shared history has to be acknowledged and discussed. This is a challenging issue, with implications that cut to the core of self-determination, and will require a thoughtful conversation among our citizenry. It is imperative as a government that we meet these moments with full engagement from our citizens. We are confident that our Nation is equipped to rise to the occasion.”

Choctaw Chief Gary Batton wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2020 expressing his concern that withholding NAHASDA money would further disenfranchise impoverished Choctaw citizens. He also penned an open letter earlier this year that echoed Muscogee Nation's statement and called for a dialogue about the shared past of the Choctaw Freedmen descendants and citizens of the Choctaw Nation.

"Today we call upon the Choctaw proud to open dialogue on the issue of Choctaw Freedmen," wrote Batton in May. "Our stories, Native American, African American, are inextricably linked with European Americans, and with one another. Let us not be bound by an artificial construct of those who sought to take our lands, culture and dignity hundreds of years ago. Let our sovereign nation reclaim what was taken 125 years ago — the ability to determine tribal membership."

Batton has since said he is open to dialogue about admitting Freedmen descendants as citizens. KOSU reached out to Choctaw Nation for a response to the hearing, but was told they had no statement at this time.

Waters said the Freedmen issue as it related to federal housing assistance is about, "fairness and equality," and at the conclusion of the hearing, she said she will be working on the issue of the Freedmen until "we get the right thing done."

Waters has taken up the Freedmen issue in Oklahoma and is using her position on the committee to elevate it.

It's unclear what the next steps will be. But, Waters said that Freedmen descendant's lack of access to housing benefits cannot stand.

Anthony Walters, Executive Director of the National American Indian Housing Council, said during his testimony that this week's hearing about a housing bill aimed at helping disadvantaged tribal citizens, should be without politics.

"The particular issue of the hearing today is also considered a membership issue by NAIHC and thus should be treated as such and not directed into a housing program," said Walters.

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