Activists say Muscogee (Creek) Nation should honor treaty - Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs

Descendants of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s former slaves say it is time the tribe finally honors the commitment it made in 1866 to give them citizenship.

“For 43 years the Creek Nation, based upon anti-black discrimination, has oppressed, humiliated and denigrated black Creek Indians—so-called Creek Freedmen—and stripped us all of our heritage and our citizenship and those benefits,” said Damario Solomon-Simmons, a descendent of former Creek slaves who has filed a lawsuit in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s tribal court.

At issue is Article II of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Treaty of 1866, which enshrines as the “supreme law of the land” that the tribe’s former slaves and their descendants “shall have and enjoy all the rights and privileges of native citizens” of the tribe.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation is one of five Oklahoma tribes—along with the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole—that participated in chattel slavery of black individuals and sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Following the war, all five tribes were forced to sign new treaties with the U.S. government that included provisions providing for citizenship rights of the tribes’ former slaves, who are often referred to as Freedmen.

All five tribes have strongly resisted implementation of those provisions ever since, although the Cherokee Nation came into compliance in 2017 after federal courts ruled against them.

At a U.S. Senate hearing conducted in July, some tribal leaders downplayed or dismissed the legitimacy of their 1866 treaties, including the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

“The treaty of 1866 has often been characterized as a Reconstruction treaty,” Jonodev Chaudhuri, ambassador for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, told lawmakers. “For us it was not. It was a land grab that stripped us of half of our reservation by force.”

He decried calls to mandate Freedmen citizenship as “another colonial intervention by the United States.”

While the five tribes have mostly dismissed the 1866 treaty obligations regarding descendants of former slaves, they have cited those same treaties in other court cases when arguing that their historic tribal reservations were never disestablished in Oklahoma, giving them significant regulatory control over most of eastern Oklahoma, including much of Tulsa that lies on historic Muscogee (Creek) land.

“This is the same tribe that stood with the Confederacy to protect its sovereign rights to enslave black people.” —Kristi Williams, a black Creek descended from the tribe’s former slaves

Since 1979, the Muscogee (Creek) have refused to recognize the membership rights of most descendants of former slaves.

Rhonda Grayson, one of the plaintiffs in the case and a descendent of former Creek slaves, noted that tribes have largely omitted her ancestors even as they employ the tribe’s often-tragic history for emotional effect in other settings.

“Oftentimes we hear the stories about individuals traveling the Trail of Tears, but we never hear the story about those individuals of African descent,” Grayson said. “Well, guess what? Our families traveled the Trail of Tears. They suffered the uprooting of their homes, the rigors of travel.”

Jeff Kennedy, another plaintiff, said there is less reason to dispute the membership status of slave descendants than many other tribal members because documentation on the identities of former Muscogee (Creek) slaves is extensive and goes back centuries.

“For the most part, we are some of the most documented people in the Nation,” Kennedy said.

In practice, the tribe’s refusal to provide citizenship to its former slaves is often intertwined with economics.

Solomon-Simmons noted the Muscogee (Creek) Nation received “a couple billion” in federal COVID funds and gave each tribal citizen $4,500 apiece, “yet the black Creeks, Creek Freedmen, did not receive a cent.”

In 2016, he noted the tribe received $32 million in federal funds as a settlement for land stolen in the 1800s. Again, Freedmen members did not receive benefits.

“Each and every year that our tax dollars go into the Creek Nation through federal funding, and then is denied to us as Creek Freedmen, that is theft,” Solomon-Simmons said.

“You cannot put a price tag on taking someone’s heritage and who they are and their history and erase it,” Solomon-Simmons said. “If you go by Creek Nation right now, you will not see anything about black Creeks.”

Some officials at the press conference noted the federal government has failed to enforce treaty obligations and even continues to reward tribes that ignore treaty promises.

Kristi Williams, another black Creek descended from the tribe’s former slaves, noted the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has representatives at a Biden White House tribal summit despite the Muscogee Nation’s refusal to honor its treaty obligations regarding former slaves.

“This is the same tribe—the same tribe—that stood with the Confederacy to protect its sovereign rights to enslave black people,” Williams said. “My people. My ancestors. And they are sitting at the table at the White House, right now.”

Eli Grayson, who is descended from people on both the Creek by-blood roll and the Creek Freedmen roll, also raised that issue.

“Let’s just be real: Tribes donate a lot of money to political campaigns,” Grayson said. “That’s the game that they play in Washington, D.C. Currently, the White House summit on Native American issues is going on this week. It started today. Creek Nation is sitting at the table in violation of their own treaty. The Choctaw Nation is sitting at the table in violation of its own treaty. Think about it. And the president and the secretary of the interior, Deb Haaland, can actually do something about this. This shouldn’t even have to go to court. They (can) say, ‘No, we can’t do this, or we will shut you down.’ And they have the authority to do that. But they’re not going to.”

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation did not acknowledge the press conference or the Freedmen’s pending case on its social-media accounts in the hours following the event.

Instead, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Twitter account tweeted a photo with a message bragging about Chief David Hill and Second Chief Del Beaver’s attendance at the White House Tribal Nations Summit.

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.