Story at a glance
- Many Americans do not know that both freed and enslaved African once lived with and were owned by Native Americans.
- When African Americans were given their freedom from the Native American tribes in 1866, the Creek Freedmen were given equal rights and recognized as members of the tribe.
- Creek Freedmen were disenfranchised from the Muscogee Creek Nation in 1979 and are still fighting for re-entry into the tribe today.
Growing up in Oklahoma City, Okla., Rhonda Grayson remembers spending time at her grandparents’ home in the small community of Wewoka — the place where many of her closest family members built their lives. It was there that she was told stories of her ancestors, known as the Creek Freedmen, and learned how to cook traditional Native American dishes such as wild onions with eggs, poke salad made with American pokeweed and hominy, the corn used to make grits.
Grayson says that while she now understands that the food she grew up with is distinctly Native American, it just wasn’t something she thought of at the time. What she did become keenly aware of as she grew older was the push and pull of her two identities, both as an African and a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, as her people fought for the tribal rights they had long ago been bestowed with.
One of the largest federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States, the Muscogee Creek Nation spans more than 7,000 square miles across the state of Oklahoma from as north as the city of Tulsa all the way down to the Canadian River, the largest tributary of the Arkansas River. More than 86,000 enrolled citizens can be found there today, all descendants of the Natives and Africans who made their way across the country by foot along the notorious Trail of Tears back in the 1830s.
Uncovering a lesser-told history
Grayson says that part of the reason she sits on the board of the Muscogee Creek Freedmen Band today is to ensure that the stories of her fellow Black Creeks, already underreported and left largely out of history textbooks, are not lost with time.
“Our organization was formed primarily to educate the general public about our history, and our culture,” says Grayson. “It’s such a rich history, and when you speak of these people, Black Creeks, oftentimes many don't know that our families actually traveled on the Trail of Tears. Though you often only hear about Native Americans’ journey, most people don't know that there were freed men and women of color. There were some who were actually slaves to the Creek Indians, and so people don't realize that our family members actually traveled on that trail and suffered loss, and lived just like any other individuals who were traveling on the Trail of Tears.”
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Established back in 1979, the Muscogee Creek Freedmen Band provides a number of educational services, from holding programs and meetings to genealogy workshops, conferences and even a traveling exhibit, which was exhibited at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, the Oklahoma Metropolitan Library and more.
Grayson’s true life goal, though, is to help secure indigenous rights for herself and her fellow Black Creeks, whose citizenships, identities, voting rights and access to federally funded programs were revoked in 1979 after the Muscogee Nation disenfranchised the Freedmen with the adoption of a new Constitution that required a blood quantum — a measurement of how much "Indian blood" a person had — reorganizing the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act's authority.
The disenfranchisement of the Freedmen, Grayson says, directly contradicts the birthrights her people were given over a hundred years ago. The beginning of this complicated timeline for the Creek Freedmen starts in 1866, when enslaved Africans living in Indian territory were given their freedom.
“Our people, our ancestors were freed by the Treaty of 1866. Article Two, which has specific language regarding people of African descent, identifies these people as African Creek, and says that these people would have all the rights and privileges of the land,” Grayson says.
“So basically, they were citizens — on equal standing [with Native Americans] and both individuals were considered to be a full blood. If you were considered a full blooded Indian with native blood, it didn't matter, you were on equal standing with Creek Freedmen with African blood, we were all citizens of the nation.”
For decades, the Black Creek played integral roles within the native community, serving as senators, judges, lawyers and even as principal chiefs of the Creek Nation. This all changed in 1898. Grayson tells us that this is when Henry Dawes rolled in, a man responsible for a government census that played a consequential role in separating the community for decades to come — one that, in fact, continues to divide the community to this day.
Under the Curtis Act, the government began to divide the tribal governments and communal lands through blood, creating allotments to every tribal member based on this new standing.
The United States government began dividing up the tribal governments and communal lands in Indian Territory. In Oklahoma, the government created allotments and gave payments to every tribal member.
In order to figure out who was an enrolled member of a tribe, the government took a census. This census was run by Dawes and was part of what was called the Dawes Commission. Dawes had a significant effect on families like Rhonda's. Black people were assigned a different status in the tribe.
“There was of course no DNA testing at that time, so there was no viable way for these individuals to determine whether someone was native or had native blood,” Grayson said. “They would just look at people and say, ‘okay, you're a little bit darker skinned, and then they would place people of African descent, or who they thought were of African descent, on the Freedmen roll, which ultimately took away their citizenship many, many years later.”
An ongoing battle
One of the individuals placed on the Freedman roll was Grayson’s own great grandmother, America Cohee, number 4661, who was only 11-years-old at the time. Born in 1888, America Cohee passed away in 1980 — just one year after being disenfranchised from the tribe she spent her entire life in.
“I can only imagine how my great grandmother felt being disenfranchised from the nation of her birth,” Grayson said. “It changed things a lot for our people. I think their identity has been lost — there are many people who followed the ways of the Indians, so when you were disenfranchised from the tribe, you lost a lot of that cultural identity.”
Now, Grayson has taken up the gauntlet of trying to reinstall these rights for her people. Beyond a loss of identity, tribal rights are also directly tied to benefits that Creek Freedmen now miss out on following their disenfranchisement. Grayson tells us that there are “educational opportunities that people of African descent really could have used, as well as health benefits and housing.”
“The Creek Nation also received a payment due to COVID-19,” she says. “African American people are being affected at high rates from COVID-19 and they certainly would have benefitted from that payment. So yes, people of African descent are missing out on a lot of benefits from the Creek Nation, because they were disenrolled unjustly.”
Since being disenfranchised more than 40 years ago, individual members of the Creek Freedmen have tried and failed to reenroll for tribal citizenship. Then, in 2018, the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band finally filed a federal lawsuit against the Creek Nation and the Interior Department in an official appeal to regain their rights. The case was dismissed in 2019, and Grayson applied for citizenship yet again before receiving another denial.
Grayson has not given up hope, though, seeking the assistance from the Dean of Academic Affairs at National Tribal Trial College, James D. Diamond, and attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, with whom she has filed a new lawsuit in the Creek Nation's lower court. The case is currently in discovery.
"People lived their entire lives as Creek Indians, went to Creek schools, Creek churches, spoke the Creek language, and celebrated Creek ceremonies. And then one day they were told they were no longer Creek,” says Diamond. “It's one thing when an Indian Tribe creates membership rules. It's another thing entirely when you take existing citizens and one day change the rules to say an entire group of citizens are no longer citizens."
In a statement, the Muscogee Nation said that the issue of the status of the descendants of enslaved people raised polarizing questions about tribal citizenship that “cut to the core of self-determination.” The tribes, they said, had fundamental rights to run their own governments and decide for themselves who qualifies as a citizen. Some suggested a reconciliation commission, rather than an edict from Congress, would be a way to resolve the issue.
“Many of our citizens feel that identity is at the heart of this issue and that blood lineage is essential to protecting it,” the Muscogee Nation said. “But, on the other hand, the grave injustice done to the slaves owned by some Creeks has to be acknowledged and discussed ... This is a challenging issue with implications that cut to the core of self-determination, and will require a thoughtful conversation among our citizenry. We are confident that our nation is equipped to rise to the occasion.”
Asked what it would mean to her to finally gain tribal citizenship for the first time in her life, Grayson says: “it would be a blessing and an atonement, I guess. Imagine living here as a United States citizen all your life, knowing no other homeland, then you wake up the next morning and the headline reads: ‘you've been disenfranchised from the United States of America. Go back from wherever you came from.’ That's essentially what happened to our people in 1979.”
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