A judge from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma has made a ruling stating that descendants of Black people who were once enslaved by the tribe are now eligible for tribal citizenship. This decision nullifies a previous change to the tribe’s Constitution made 44 years ago that expelled Black members from the nation.
Judge Denette Mouser, presiding over the tribe’s District Court, ruled in favor of two descendants of tribal slaves, who are now known as Freedmen. These individuals had applied for citizenship in the Muscogee Nation but were denied due to their ancestry. Judge Mouser reversed these decisions and ordered the tribe to reconsider the applications of the two plaintiffs, Rhonda K. Grayson and Jeffrey D. Kennedy, with the understanding that individuals with Black tribal ancestors are indeed eligible for citizenship.
In response to the ruling, Geri Wisner, the attorney general for the Muscogee Nation, stated that the tribe intends to appeal the decision to the nation’s Supreme Court. Wisner added that the tribal Constitution does not currently provide provisions for citizenship for non-Creek individuals.
This ruling marks a significant victory for the Freedmen, who have been engaged in a lengthy political and legal battle to be recognized as tribal citizens. In recent years, Native American tribes in Oklahoma, as well as the federal government, have modified discriminatory policies against the Freedmen. These changes came about due to advocacy efforts, lobbying by tribal officials, and the involvement of members of Congress. For example, the Cherokee Nation eliminated language from its Constitution in 2021 that restricted the rights of the Freedmen within the tribe. Furthermore, the Indian Health Service began providing healthcare to Freedmen in the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma in the same year.
During the Civil War era, numerous tribes in Oklahoma aligned themselves with the Confederacy and fought to preserve slavery. However, after the war, a series of treaties were established in 1866 between the federal government and five tribes in Oklahoma, including the Muscogee Nation. These treaties abolished slavery and granted former slaves within these tribes “all the rights” of citizens in the tribal nations.
At the heart of the dispute over tribal citizenship lies a federal census of Native American tribes conducted in the early 1900s. This census divided members by race into two categories: Black and non-Black tribal rolls, respectively known as the Freedmen and “by blood” rolls.
In the 1970s, the principal chief of the Muscogee Nation at that time, Claude Cox, expressed concerns that “blood” citizens of the nation would be outnumbered by Black citizens. In a meeting of the tribe’s National Council in 1977, he stated that “full-bloods” had lost control of the tribe and that the nation needed a Constitution that would maintain Creek Indian control.
In 1979, the Muscogee Nation adopted a new Constitution stipulating that only those descended from “Indians by blood” were eligible for citizenship. This effectively used the racial division in the tribal rolls to expel Black members.
However, Judge Mouser argued in her ruling that the 1866 treaty between the United States and the Muscogee Nation still holds legal weight. She stated that the tribe had violated the treaty by disqualifying individuals with Black tribal ancestors from citizenship. Judge Mouser emphasized that the treaty must be followed in all regards, including eligibility for citizenship, and concluded that either the treaty is entirely binding or none of it is.
Ivory Vann, a Creek Freedman, shared that he and his children had previously applied for citizenship but were denied due to their Freedmen ancestry. He expressed his satisfaction that they may now be considered eligible but lamented the tribe’s decision to appeal. Vann expressed hope that after more than four decades, they would finally obtain their citizenship. He added that their ancestors would be proud of their rights being restored.