A judge for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma ruled that descendants of Black people who were enslaved by the tribe are eligible for tribal citizenship, nullifying a change to the tribe’s Constitution that had expelled Black members from the nation 44 years ago.
Judge Denette Mouser of the tribe’s District Court ruled on Wednesday in favor of two descendants of tribal slaves, known today as Freedmen, who had applied for citizenship in the Muscogee Nation but were denied because of their ancestry.
Judge Mouser reversed those decisions and ordered the tribe to reconsider the applications of the two plaintiffs, Rhonda K. Grayson and Jeffrey D. Kennedy, with the understanding that applicants with Black tribal ancestors are eligible for citizenship.
Geri Wisner, the attorney general for the Muscogee Nation, said in a statement that the tribe would appeal the decision to the nation’s Supreme Court, adding that the tribal Constitution “makes no provisions for citizenship for non-Creek individuals.”
The decision was a significant victory for Freedmen, who have been embroiled in a long political and legal battle to be recognized as tribal citizens.
Native American tribes in Oklahoma and the federal government have in recent years changed policies that discriminated against Freedmen, following a public pressure campaign by advocates, tribal officials and members of Congress. The Cherokee Nation in 2021 eliminated language from its Constitution that limited the rights of Freedmen in the tribe. And the Indian Health Service began providing care to Freedmen in the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma later that year.
In the Civil War era, many tribes in Oklahoma allied themselves with the Confederacy and fought to preserve the institution of slavery. After the war, a series of treaties in 1866 between the federal government and five tribes in Oklahoma — including the Muscogee Nation — abolished slavery and granted their former slaves “all the rights” of citizens in the tribal nations.
At the center of the dispute over tribal citizenship is a federal census of Native American tribes compiled in the early 1900s that divided members by race into 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 the time, Claude Cox, expressed fear that “blood” citizens of the nation would be outnumbered by Black citizens. At a meeting of the tribe’s National Council in 1977, he said that “full-bloods” had “lost control” of the tribe and that the nation needed “a Constitution that will keep the Creek Indian in control.”
The Muscogee Nation adopted a new Constitution in 1979 that said only those descended from “Indians by blood” were eligible for citizenship. In effect, that change used the racial division in the tribal rolls to expel Black members.
But Judge Mouser said in her ruling that the treaty between the United States and the Muscogee Nation in 1866 was still the law of the land and that the tribe had violated the treaty by disqualifying people with Black tribal ancestors from citizenship.
“There can be no doubt that the treaty must be followed in all regards, including as it relates to the eligibility for citizenship,” Judge Mouser wrote in her decision, adding, “Either the treaty in its entirety is binding or none of it is.”
Ivory Vann, a Creek Freedman, said he and his children had previously applied for citizenship and were denied because of their Freedmen ancestry. He said he was pleased that he may now be considered eligible but added, “I just hate that the Creek Nation has to be so mean and ornery to try to appeal it.”
“I just hope that after 40-something years that we finally get our citizenship,” Mr. Vann said, adding that “our ancestors would be proud that we are finally getting our rights back.”