Freedmen Status Aired U.S. Senate Body Ponders Slave Descendants’ Rights


Special to the Chronicle

WASHINGTON—Last week, United States  senators called for a review to determine whether the federal government should provide housing support, health care and other services to freedman descendants of once enslaved by Oklahoma American Indian tribes. 

That suggestion from U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz (Dem., Hawaii) and Lisa Murkowski (Rep., Alaska) came during an oversight committee hearing on the status of Freedmen descendants in the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole Nations.

The two lawmakers lead the Senate Indian affairs committee, which held the hearing. 

The session placed a national spotlight on the   debates over Freedmen citizenship, which vary from tribal nation to tribal nation.  

Several tribal leaders and their attorneys cautioned against any blanket actions from any branch of the federal government, because every nation’s history and treaty responsibilities are different.

While Sen. Schatz acknowledged there were no easy solutions, he described a report by the Government Accountability Office as a “reasonable place” for the Senate to start toward reconciliation.

“We want to make sure that sovereignty is respected, but we also want to understand that Black enslaved people and Native Americans were mistreated,” Sen. Schatz said.  

“We are all in this situation because of the actions of the federal government of the United States, the official policy of the federal government.”

The hearing was the first time the Senate focused on freedman descendants, who have pressed for decades to be treated the same as other tribal members.  

They point to provisions in four 1866 treaties signed between tribal leaders and federal officials.  

But many Freedmen and their descendants were never enrolled or cut out of tribal rolls in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Today, only the Cherokee Nation extends full citizenship and benefits to Freedmen descendants, prompted by a 2017 court ruling.

Marilyn Vann, the lone Freedmen descendant invited to speak, told the 12 lawmakers on the Indian affairs committee that they should incorporate the rights of Freedmen descendants into laws to ensure they receive equal services and benefits, because tribal leaders so far have not. 

“Many descendants today need services, the same as their by-blood relatives,” said Mrs. Vann, a longtime advocate for Freedmen descendants. 

She is also now a Cherokee citizen and sits on the nation’s environmental protection commission.

Cherokee Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. testified in support of Mrs. Vann and the steps Cherokee leaders have taken in recent years to try to make amends.  

“I think it’s made me a better chief,” he said.   “It exposed me to some of the needs in that community that we need to work to meet.”

Representatives of the four other tribes were more direct in speaking out against potential federal action.   

“Colonialist history does not bode well in terms of efforts by the United States to impose its values on these sovereign nations, and we need to learn from history,” Muscogee Nation Ambassador Jonodev Chaudhuri said. 

“One way to turn sympathetic folks in this issue against a federal action is to impose solutions, rather than have a true healing process within the nation that’s fostered by information.  And that’s what we’re engaged in right now.”

While Sen. Schatz suggested a federal review, U.S. Rep.  Maxine Waters (Dem., Calif.) has proposed more drastic steps in the House that she testified about during last week’s hearing.

Congresswoman Waters, who leads the House Committee on Financial Services, wants to tie tribal housing to the recognition of Freedmen descendants.

“I do not believe that the documented history of the descendants of Freedmen can be ignored, forgotten or dismissed any longer,” she said. 

Last week’s hearing came exactly one year after Congresswoman Waters’ committee held its own hearing focused on the rights of Freedmen descendants.

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