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Racial Justice v. Tribal Sovereignty


If you want to get into the messiness of American history, explore the history of race and slavery within the tribes. The Choctaw for instance really do not want to count the descendants of their former African slaves as part of the tribe, in part because they don’t want to split up the casino money with them through the tribe’s significant social programs.

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.


“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.”

American race…..it’s a hell of a thing.

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