Lawmakers Threaten to Deny Tribes Funds Over Bias Freedmen

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U.S.|Lawmakers threaten to withhold major funds from Native tribes over treatment of descendants of the enslaved.

Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, attended a hearing in Washington on Tuesday as a witness in support of equal tribal citizenship for the Freedmen, the descendants of Black people enslaved by some tribes.
Credit...Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times
  • July 27, 2021, 7:29 p.m. ET

Members of Congress on Tuesday threatened to withhold tens of millions of dollars in federal funding from four Native American tribes in Oklahoma, adding to renewed public pressure to end policies that discriminate against descendants of Black people who were enslaved by the tribes before the Civil War.

The House Financial Services Committee is considering adding a provision to a bill reauthorizing federal housing funds that would withhold some or all of those funds from tribes found in violation of their treaty obligations to these Black Native Americans, known as the Freedmen.

“For one minority group to discriminate against a minority group, as the chair of this committee, I don’t intend for it to stand,” said Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee.

Ms. Waters is a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and has used her influence to advance racial equality measures. She has also previously attempted to aid the Freedmen through provisions added in her committee.

The provision was discussed during a subcommittee hearing on the treatment of the Freedmen. Under Reconstruction-era treaties signed with the federal government in 1866, they had been enrolled as members of their tribes, but were expelled more than a century later by changes in tribal constitutions that added “by blood” requirements for citizenship: descent from non-Black tribal citizens who were on the Dawes Rolls of 1906, a census.

Freedmen were listed separately from “by blood” tribal members in the census.

The Native tribes now face pressure from two branches of government to recognize the Freedmen. The Biden administration has encouraged the tribes to voluntarily restore their citizenship and grant them equal rights. In May, Deb Haaland, the first Native American secretary of the Interior, addressed the Freedmen in Oklahoma and acknowledged their rights as citizens of the tribes that had enslaved their ancestors.

The Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Seminole and Chickasaw nations, which originally inhabited the Southeast, purchased enslaved Black people as laborers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and took them along when the federal government forcibly moved the tribes in a deadly ordeal known as the “Trail of Tears.”

Of these five tribes, only the Cherokee Nation grants the Freedmen equal citizenship by law, meaning that the four other tribes would likely be considered to be in violation of their treaty obligations. These four tribes received a combined $27.7 million in housing funds from the federal government this year.

Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, attended the hearing as a witness in support of equal citizenship for Freedmen in the other tribes. Mr. Hoskin has been a longtime supporter of the Freedmen, and presided over a change to the Cherokee Nation’s constitution in February that eliminated the “by blood” requirement for citizenship, the biggest step by a tribe so far to resolve the issue.

During the hearing, he declared that the Cherokee Nation’s enslavement of Black people, and efforts to discriminate against their descendants — abetted by previous tribal chiefs — were “a stain on the Cherokee Nation.”

“I offer both an apology on behalf of the Cherokee Nation for these actions, and more importantly, I offer a commitment to reconciliation,” Mr. Hoskin said.

But he urged the committee to not hold housing funding hostage over the issue.

“I don’t believe Congress should condition federal housing policy and dollars on this type of public policy,” Mr. Hoskin said. “I think it breeds antipathy. I don’t think it breeds understanding.”

Ms. Waters countered that the other tribes had opposed calls for equal rights for Freedmen for years, and that “they have no intentions of doing it.”

Marilyn Vann, a Cherokee citizen and president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, presented accounts of Freedmen denied housing assistance and even Covid vaccinations by their tribes, and offered her support for congressional efforts to deny funding to tribes that continued to refuse full rights to the Freedmen.

“Many of the descendants of Freedmen today are impoverished and in need of housing,” Ms. Vann said, “as a result of past and current systemic racism.”

Two Native American tribes had said in May they would consider reversing the expulsion of their Freedmen. But those two, the Choctaw Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation, stopped short of a commitment to grant citizenship to the Freedmen, instead saying they would open discussions about the issue.

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