Black Freedmen struggle for recognition as tribal citizens

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LeEtta Osborne-Sampson is pictured outside her home Monday, April 26, 2021, in Oklahoma City. Sampson-Osborn, a Seminole Freedman who has a tribal identification card and serves on the tribe's governing council, said when she went to the Indian Health Services clinic to get a vaccination in February, a worker at the clinic told her the Seminole Nation doesn't recognize Freedmen for health services. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

OKLAHOMA CITY – As the U.S. faces a reckoning over its history of racism, some Native American tribal nations that once owned slaves also are grappling with their own mistreatment of Black people.

When Native American tribes were forced from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States to what is now Oklahoma in the 1800s — known as the Trail of Tears — thousands of Black slaves owned by tribal members also were removed and forced to provide manual labor along the way. Once in Oklahoma, slaves often toiled on plantation-style farms or were servants in tribal members' homes.

Nearly 200 years later, many of the thousands of descendants of those Black slaves, known as Freedmen, are still fighting to be recognized by the tribes that once owned their ancestors. The fight has continued since the killing of George Floyd last year by a Minneapolis police officer spurred a reexamination of the vestiges of slavery in the U.S.

CHEROKEE NATION FREEDMEN

The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole nations were referred to historically as the Five Civilized Tribes, or Five Tribes, by European settlers because they often assimilated into the settlers' culture, adopting their style of dress and religion, and even owning slaves. Each tribe also has a unique history with Freedmen, whose rights were ultimately spelled out in separate treaties with the U.S.

Today, the Cherokee Nation is the only tribe that fully recognizes the Freedmen as full citizens, a decision that came in 2017 following years of legal wrangling.

“I think that we are a better tribe for having not only embraced the federal court decision but embraced the concept of equality,” said Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., a longtime supporter of citizenship rights for the Freedmen.

The Cherokee Nation, among the largest Native American tribes, has about 5,800 Freedmen citizens who have traced an ancestor on the tribe’s original Freedmen rolls in the late 19th century.