This story originally appeared on Underscore.news.
The chief of one of the largest Native American tribes in the United States is fighting a behind-the-scenes battle with Congress that pits racial justice against tribal sovereignty.
Gary Batton, chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, says he’s trying to head off efforts by powerful legislators who want to cut housing funds for his tribe unless the Choctaw change their citizenship rules. The fight spilled into public view last year, when Batton circulated a letter he wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisting that Congress stay out of deciding who qualifies as Choctaw. Batton warned that language some members are trying to include in a routine housing reauthorization bill would amount to “holding hostage housing assistance otherwise due the Choctaw Nation.”
Batton’s letter was a rare public acknowledgement that some members of Congress are using the housing bill to force the Choctaw and other Native nations to recognize as citizens the descendants of people enslaved by tribal members.
Those descendants, known as Freedmen, were promised tribal citizenship by treaty after the U.S. Civil War. They’re still seeking it today.
The Choctaw Nation’s “continued disenfranchisement of Freedmen descendants is a carefully disguised system of hidden anti-Black racism,” wrote Angela Walton-Raji, a Freedmen researcher and genealogist, in her own letter to Pelosi. Walton-Raji, like many Freedmen, is the descendant of Choctaw citizens and enslaved Africans, and considers herself Choctaw. But Walton-Raji says she’s being denied citizenship because she’s Black.
Batton, whose 200,000-member nation is not only the third-largest tribe in the country but one of the wealthiest, insists that the fight is about sovereignty. Congress, he wrote, is for all intents and purposes coercing the Choctaw Nation into violating its own tribal constitution in favor of adopting policies approved by U.S. elected officials.
Federally recognized tribes are sovereign nations, with power to determine who’s a citizen. But Walton-Raji said that, because the nation won’t reconsider its race-based enrollment criteria, Freedmen have nowhere to turn but Congress.
The language some members of Congress want introduced into the reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act would force the Choctaw and other nations to enroll Freedmen if the tribes want to continue receiving essential tribal housing funds. These efforts to change the language are led by California Democrat and House Financial Services Committee Chair Maxine Waters, who’s also a past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
A version of the bill without the language Batton is fighting — sponsored by New Mexico representative and likely future interior secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo — failed to pass last year. Tribal governments say the bill badly needs updating.
Does the Choctaw Nation have the sovereign right to retain discriminatory policies, or does the U.S. have the right to intervene on behalf of Freedmen? And in the case of the latter, are tribal housing funds the appropriate vehicle for this intervention?
‘Just pure out-and-out racism’ in Native Communities
The Choctaw Nation is one of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, nations once spread across the southeastern U.S. whose people adopted many customs of white colonists before they were forcibly relocated to what’s now Oklahoma. The citizens of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee (Creek), and Seminole Nations made a series of long marches from their homes in the 19th Century that left thousands dead and became known as the Trail of Tears. Today the Trail of Tears is a symbol of the U.S. government’s history of genocidal policies toward Native Americans. What’s less well known is that many tribal members forced enslaved people to walk the arduous Trail with them.
Batton’s letter has once again brought into the public eye the history of slavery by the Five Tribes. It also inadvertently shined a light on efforts by the descendants of those who were enslaved to become tribal members. Freedmen descendants have had some success achieving recognition from other former slave-owning tribes, notably the Cherokee Nation. But the Choctaw have consistently resisted recognizing Freedmen as citizens, even in a time when society is pushing back against systemic racism.
“Maybe they think that if they keep the Freedmen out long enough, younger generations will just forget and say ‘oh well, we’re just gonna go be Black people here,’” said Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendents of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, an organization representing the estimated hundreds of thousands of Freedmen descendents living today. Vann, a Cherokee Freedmen descendant who also has Choctaw Freedmen ancestry, successfully fought for Cherokee citizenship. She’s now running for the Tribal Council of the Cherokee Nation. She says tribal identity is as important to Freedmen as Black identity.
While Choctaw citizens don’t receive direct payments from the tribal government, a large share of the Nation’s revenues goes toward member services including healthcare, scholarships, and home ownership assistance for enrolled citizens. Formal enrollment can help with finding jobs and government contracts and allows tribal citizens to market their goods as Native art. Part of the reason the Choctaw Nation won’t enroll Freedmen, Vann says, is “not wanting to share in any of the wealth coming from the casinos, or compete with the Freedmen regarding any kind of contracts.”
But above all else, Vann and Walton-Raji say enrollment is about meaningful participation in the community.
In rural southeastern Oklahoma, says Walton-Raji, some people still living on their old land proudly self-identify as Black as well as Choctaw.
Vann says Freedmen can volunteer to cook at community events or to help repair buildings, but can’t vote or run for office. She calls this “just pure out-and-out racism,” which persists even though some Choctaw citizens and Freedmen have family ties. “I might go down and talk to my Black cousin, my Freedmen cousin, down at the rodeo,” Vann says, mimicking a familiar refrain she has heard. “But I don’t want to talk to him over at the council house!”
The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is the only one of the Five Tribes to fully recognize and enroll Freedmen as citizens. Vann was a plaintiff in the lawsuit that resulted in a federal judge ordering the Cherokee to grant citizenship to Freedmen in 2017. The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma enrolls Freedmen, but doesn’t give them full benefits of citizenship. As a result of the 2017 federal court decision, the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation last month struck the term “by blood,” which had been used to deny Freedmen citizenship, from the tribe’s constitution and other laws.
The court wrote that the phrase is “obsolete, and repugnant to the ideal of liberty.” The decision, which drew praise from Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., could undercut objections to Freedmen participating in the tribe’s affairs, like those to Vann’s council candidacy. Walton-Raji says she hopes the Choctaw Nation will eventually follow suit.
A Fight in Congress
Denny Heck, who wrote the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act of 2019, said the law hasn’t been updated in more than a decade and badly needs revamping to meet the housing crisis in Native communities.
“The data on both crowding and homelessness and substandard housing in Indian Country is more stark than any other demographic group in America,” said Heck, who served in Congress from 2013 until becoming Washington’s lieutenant governor this year.
But Heck said Waters wouldn’t move the bill forward unless it acted as a vehicle to “compel citizenship or enrollment” of the Freedmen, an issue Heck wanted to keep out of the housing bill. In the end, they couldn’t reach a compromise, and the bill never came to the floor for a vote.
Waters didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Now, when Congress allocates NAHASDA monies every year, they’re distributed according to outdated funding formulas. In his letter, Batton writes that he “is not aware of any other instance in recent decades where Congress has held federal appropriations hostage in an effort to force a sovereign Indian Tribal Government to violate or alter its own Constitution.” But there is some precedent for Waters’ efforts. Congress in 2007 froze the Cherokee Nation’s federal housing funds when then-Chief Chad Smith disenrolled the Cherokee Freedmen.
Batton didn’t respond to a request for comment, but his spokesperson said that if the reauthorization bill is passed with Waters’ language included, it “would force the Choctaw Nation to amend their constitution without the vote of the people and would withhold funding from our tribal members most in need.”
Enslaved on the Trail of Tears
Prior to the invasion of European colonists, the Choctaw, like other tribes, practiced less permanent forms of slavery, usually involving prisoners of war who were eventually released or naturalized into the tribe.
After Europeans arrived, the Choctaw adopted colonists' form of Black chattel slavery. White settlers married into the Choctaw tribe. Some mixed families established plantation dynasties built on enslaving Black people.
Chief Peter Pitchlynn, who was instrumental in establishing the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory after the Trail of Tears, enslaved around 80 people himself. People Pitchlynn enslaved picked 62,500 pounds of cotton on his plantations between 1861 and 1865 for distribution amongst the Choctaw people. Walton-Raji’s great uncle Albert Burris was the child of two people enslaved by Chief Pitchlynn.
Some Choctaw families even sold furniture and other possessions to buy enslaved people they forced to join them on the Trail of Tears, says Walton-Raji. “Slavery wasn’t pushed upon them at all. They voluntarily took slaves, and continued to purchase them,” she says. Walton-Raji has memories of her own great-grandmother Sallie Walton, who was born into slavery and lived to be 98 years old.
“My great-grandmother would let me sip out of her cup of sassafras tea,” Walton-Raji recalls. “She would pour some of it in a saucer and blow on it, and let me sip it from the saucer.” Sassafras, or kvfi, is a part of Choctaw culture important enough that it has a month named after it.
Sallie’s mother was enslaved, and her father was Choctaw. But despite her Choctaw lineage, Walton-Raji can’t enroll. Both she and Vann say Oklahoma’s history of slavery has largely been erased from textbooks and public consciousness.
“There’s always the unaddressed elephant in the room. The elephant in the room is Black chattel slavery, period,” Walton-Raji says.
The U.S. Civil War created rifts in the Choctaw Nation, but ultimately tribal leaders decided to fight for the Confederacy, taking up arms against the U.S. for the first and only time in the tribe’s history. The Oklahoma state flag is even based partially on the banner of the Choctaw Braves, which flew alongside the Confederate flag.
Even after the war ended and the U.S. ratified the 13th Amendment, Choctaw families continued operating slave plantations.
More than a year later, the Choctaw and their neighbors, the Chickasaw, agreed to abandon slavery by signing the Treaty of 1866. The U.S. offered the tribes $300,000 (about $10 million today) if they would formally enroll Freedmen as tribal citizens within two years. The two years passed, but neither tribe enrolled the Freedmen.
“They took the money!” says Vann. “They stole the $300,000 from the United States.”
In his letter to Pelosi, Batton called it “unseemly and unfair” to hold the Choctaw Nation to the Treaty of 1866, “especially since the United States itself has wholly breached its obligations under many other provisions of the same 1866 Treaty.” Batton said the tribe is caught in a broader reckoning over racial justice.
“Congress should not be permitted to abuse its power by forcing the Choctaw Nation to fix America’s longstanding problems of systemic racism rooted in America’s enslavement of African Americans,” Batton wrote, without addressing the Choctaw Nation’s own history of slavery.
After the Treaty of 1866, Black Freedmen who were ethnically Choctaw — many spoke Chahta Anumpa, ate Choctaw food, dressed Choctaw, and lived in Choctaw communities — had no country. They wouldn’t be U.S. citizens until the passage of the 14th Amendment two years later, and the Choctaw Nation wouldn’t recognize them.
Delay, Enrollment, and Disenrollment Again
After delaying for almost two decades, the Choctaw Nation finally enrolled the Freedmen as tribal citizens in 1883. But the enrollment would prove temporary.
In 1893, the U.S. created the Dawes Commission to limit the Five Civilized Tribes’ enrollment and land holdings, part of a strategy to dissolve Native identity. Census takers declared virtually anyone they could identify of African descent as Freedmen – even if the Freedmen also had Native ancestry. Nearly a century later, the Choctaw Nation approved a constitution that relies on similar calculus to determine citizenship. Under the 1983 Choctaw Constitution, descendants of people identified as Freedmen by the Dawes Commission cannot enroll in the tribe.
Walton-Raji has the census card for her great-grandmother. And despite the fact that it identifies Sallie Walton as the daughter of a Choctaw citizen, Sallie herself is identified as “Freedmen.” Therefore, Walton-Raji is ineligible for citizenship.
“So our blood doesn’t count,” Walton-Raji says. “Our blood does not matter.”
Sovereignty or ‘States’ Rights’?
Vann compared Batton’s appeal to tribal sovereignty to the states’ rights rallying cry used during the South’s opposition to integration. “All those old racist rednecks back in the day, they all sat hollering about states’ rights,” Vann said. “What is the difference?”
Walton-Raji echoes that comparison. “Growing up in Arkansas, I know what ‘states’ rights’ means,” she said. “It’s a code word that former Confederate sympathizers use to say ‘we have a right to treat people of African descent, or people with African blood, any way we wish.’”
The federal government’s relationships with tribes, however, is different than its relationships with states.
“The U.S. would be violating tribal sovereignty if they financially pressured the Choctaw Nation into enrolling Freedmen,” says Kyle T. Mays, Saginaw Anishinaabe, who is assistant professor at UCLA’s Department of African American Studies and the American Indian Studies Center. “I don’t think the U.S. government has any business involving themselves.”
At the same time, Mays acknowledges the Choctaw Freedmen have very little recourse. “I think they have a right to petition someone for their rights, and the only option for them is the U.S. government,” he said.
Mays says enrolling Freedmen voluntarily would be “one of the best ways to assert tribal sovereignty.” He recommends that tribal leaders recognize the history of enslavement, make a public apology, and hold a ceremony in Choctaw traditions to include the Freedmen.
“In the era of Black Lives Matter, rampant anti-Black violence, this would go a long way in restoring balance and healing wounds,” Mays said.
In the meantime, Choctaw Freedmen like Walton-Raji are trying to take their place in a culture to which they’re deeply connected but that excludes them.
“It’s almost like a one-sided love affair,” says Walton-Raji, “because plenty of people who are Freedmen descendents have very warm, heartfelt feelings for their Choctaw brethren.”
Brian Oaster (they/them) is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and a freelance reporter working in the Pacific Northwest. Their stories have appeared in papers like Street Roots, Portland's award winning non-profit weekly that focuses on social justice, and Indian Country Today, the nation's most widely read Native newspaper. Brian also occasionally does radio work for KBOO Community Radio Portland. They have a particular interest in Native issues where they intersect with environmental and racial justice, urban development, housing issues, and representation in the arts. Follow them on Twitter @brianoaster.
Underscore is a nonprofit collaborative reporting team in Portland focused on investigative reporting and Indian Country coverage. We are supported by foundations, corporate sponsors and donor contributions. Follow Underscore on Facebook and Twitter.