Congress is taking steps to examine whether the Five Civilized Tribes, all based in Oklahoma, are living up to treaty agreements to provide full citizenship and rights to the descendants of Freedmen, the slaves once held by tribal members.
The chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), opened the oversight hearing on “Select Provisions of the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties between the United States and Oklahoma Tribes” by saying the goal was to start a "respectful dialogue" on an issue that stems from the nation’s two greatest failures—the removal of native peoples from their traditional homelands and the enslavement of Black people.
"I understand and acknowledge that this is a difficult conversation," said Sen. Schatz, "because this issue, at its core, involves injustices perpetrated by the United States government more than a century ago against both Native Americans and African-Americans."
The 'conversation' involved testimony from representatives of the Five Civilized Tribes — the Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and Seminole Nation — and from Marilyn Vann, President of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Fives Tribes Association.
Vann, herself the descendant of Freedmen and now member of the Cherokee Nation, has advocated on behalf of Freedmen descendants for two decades and said there are many who are not getting the tribal benefits they are entitled to under the 1866 treaties.
"Currently," Vann stated, "only Cherokee Nation works to fulfill its treaty obligations to Freedmen,"
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. acknowledged, as recently as a decade ago, the tribe's leaders were fighting to keep Freedmen out, but said a 2017 court case gave his predecessor no choice but to abide by the words of the treaty, which was ratified by both parties to it.
"Article 9 of that treaty states that, quote, all Freedmen and their descendants she’ll have all the rights of native Cherokees -- not some of the rights, all the rights," Hoskin testified.
In an interview prior to the hearing, Hoskin said the tribe's current approach to the Freedmen issue versus ten years ago is 'night and day.'
"I like to think, collectively as Cherokee people, we’ve learned and we’ve grown," Hoskin said. "I think we’re a better nation, a bigger nation. But the hard feelings, I think, are softening, and I think that’s progress."
Oklahoma Senator James Lankford is a member of the committee and used his time to press witnesses for their assessment of significant the issue of disenchanted Freedmen is within their own tribes.
"How do we get to a resolution so it's not another century from now and the same kind of hearing is still occurring?" Lankford asked.
But the representatives of the other tribes, generally, rejected the notion that this an issue that needs to be resolved, or at least that they should be responsible for resolving.
"If there’s a problem," said Choctaw Nation General Counsel Michael Burrage, "the federal government needs to find a solution that does not infringe on the rights of the Choctaw people or the integrity of our self-governance."
The 1866 reconstruction treaties varied from tribe to tribe and each went on to deal with the issue of adopting descendants of formerly held slaves differently. For several, including the Choctaw, tribal membership is based on blood -- only lineal descendants can be vested with citizenship. This was written into the Choctaw Nation's 1983 Constitution, which was approved by the U.S. Bureau of Indian of Affairs.
"Our Constitution has existed and worked well for almost 4 decades,” said Burrage, “and now another part of the federal government that approved the Constitution wants to unilaterally walk it back, without the consent of the Indians affected or consent of the Tribe. Does that sound familiar?"
Representatives of other tribes voiced similar concerns, expressing resentment at the notion of Congress dumbing down a complicated issue with a two-hour hearing.
"Any true solution must go beyond the shallow political rhetoric and the yes-no binaries that such rhetoric supports," said Jonodev Chaudhuri, Ambassador of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
Chaudhuri said their experience with slavery, and thus how to handle the descendants of those enslaved, is unique and, as a sovereign nation, they are working through it at their own pace and on their own terms.
"The solution to this is not another colonial intervention by the United States," he said.
It appears that one likely next step for the committee will be authorizing the preparation of a report that would give members some baseline data, such as the numbers of currently recognized and unrecognized Freedmen descendants across the tribes.