The Black Native American descendants fighting for the right to belong

Descendants of enslaved members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation have been in a decadeslong fight for recognition after they were told they could no longer call themselves members.
America Cohee-Webster, circa 1965, and Willie Cohee, circa 1896.
America Cohee-Webster, circa 1965, left, and Willie Cohee, circa 1896.Courtesy Rhonda Grayson

When Rhonda Grayson was growing up in Oklahoma, summer visits to her grandparents' house in Wewoka meant time spent in the kitchen with her grandmother. Together they cooked peach cobbler and traditional Native foods like wild onions, poke salad and hominy, the corn used to make grits.

Cooking was just one way Grayson learned about the rich history and culture of the generations of Black Native Americans who came before her.

"I was always keenly aware of my African ancestry," said Grayson, 51. Part of her lineage was Native, too. "I always knew that we were Creek."'

One of those Black Creek ancestors was Grayson's great-grandmother America Cohee.

Cohee was an original enrollee in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. For generations, Black Creeks like Cohee had been a part of the tribe, until one day they weren't.

For more than 40 years, Black Creek descendants like Rhonda Grayson have been fighting to regain citizenship in the Creek tribe. Because their lineage also harks back to the dark days of chattel slavery, these would-be members of the Creek Nation have been shut out. In a year marked by historic uprisings in support of Black lives, these Black Native Americans say now is the time to acknowledge their rights, too.

The deep impact of the Dawes Act

Based in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the Creek Nation today has more than 86,000 enrolled citizens. It is one of the largest federally recognized tribes in the United States. The nation's land includes more than 7,000 square miles across Oklahoma, stretching from Tulsa in the north to the Canadian River at its southern edge.

The Creek people descend from Indigenous tribes who lived in the Southeastern U.S. long before European colonization, but eventually those two histories converged.

As chattel slavery became a core economic engine in the colonies, some tribes, including the Creek, also capitalized on slave labor.

The late 1700s was "when the tribe really began to pick up on Black enslavement," said Alaina E. Roberts, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. The Creek Nation adopted chattel slavery as a strategic effort, Roberts said, to ally with white settlers by assimilating to their culture.

But assimilation wouldn't stop the forces of colonization. In the 1830s, the federal government forced the Creek people from their land in Alabama and Georgia to the newly created Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma.

Among those relocated were free Blacks living as members of the tribe or those with mixed African and Indigenous heritage. Others were enslaved.

"People often think about the Trail of Tears," Grayson said, but "they never think about the folks of African descent. "They suffered loss just like full-blood Indians suffered loss."

About 24,000 Creek people were removed on the Trail of Tears, and by 1860, the Creek Nation held 1,600 people in bondage. Historians estimate that by 1861, 8,000 to 10,000 Black people were enslaved by various tribes in Indian Territory.

Slavery ended in the greater U.S. in 1865 but not in the Creek Nation until 1866. That year, the U.S. government signed a treaty, freeing the tribe's enslaved peoples, now "freedmen," and giving them the right to tribal citizenship.

Despite the treaty, the question of freedmen citizenship would be debated for a century and a half.

In 1898, the U.S. government divided Creek lands and gave allotments to each tribal member. Aiding that process were the Dawes Rolls, which were created by the federal government to categorize Creek people by their blood quantum or as "freedmen," people who had been enslaved or were descended from the formerly enslaved.

But the Dawes system was flawed, and it created a false binary between "freedmen" and "blood" citizens. Members were placed on the rolls based on how they looked, whom they associated with and where they lived.

"These were white men from the outside who don't understand how tribal membership works," Roberts said. "So a lot of it was what they think an Indian or Black person looks like and acts like."

No matter their actual ancestry, light-skinned people could end up on the blood roll, while darker-skinned people were listed on the freedmen roll. "There are plenty of examples in all the tribes in which people in the same family are put on two different rolls," Roberts said.

For a long time, the rolls were a matter of historical documentation. The people designated as Creek Freedmen were full citizens of the Creek Nation — until 1979, when everything changed.

That year, the tribe voted for a new constitution, changing the requirements for tribal citizenship. It required blood ancestry to belong to the tribe, using the final "by blood" Dawes Roll as proof. From that point on, anyone who previously had membership as a result of freedmen ancestry was unenrolled.

This was a significant hit to previous Black members. In the 1960s and '70s, the Creek Nation began to receive millions of dollars in federal payments for historical violations of treaties dating to the 1800s, and it was beginning to restructure its government.

Around this time, Roberts said, many tribes, like the Creek, were seeking new ways to reinforce their sovereignty from the U.S. government and their nations' social identities. Changing the terms of citizenship was one way to tell a new story about themselves. From that point on, to be a member of the Creek Nation meant to be a by-blood citizen.

Creeks and the fight for self-determination

Sharon Lenzy-Scott's mother, Adlene Perryman-Lenzy, was one of the members who was disenrolled around the time the federal payments were approved.

"They just said that you were no longer a citizen of the nation," Lenzy-Scott said. One day she was a Creek citizen and the next she wasn't, and she was ineligible for future federal payments.

Perryman-Lenzy fought to be re-enrolled for more than 20 years. But that didn't happen by the time she died in 2000.

Since the 1970s, descendants of Creek Freedmen like Perryman-Lenzy have tried to re-enroll and been denied.

For the Creek Freedmen descendants today, disenrollment has meant the loss of cultural identity, including recognition of the Creek Nation's practice of slavery.

It has also fractured the descendants' sense of belonging, a source of pain that Rhonda Grayson said is still felt today.

"If we say that we're Black Creeks, we will get flak from not only people who don't look like us, but from people who look like us," Grayson said. "And they will tell us that we are trying to be Indians and we're not Indians. We are just Black people, or, you know, other terms that they would use."

Disenrollment has also amounted to incalculable material losses across generations, including the right to vote and run in tribal elections and access to federally funded programs for housing and health care, as well as financial assistance for college or, Grayson said, Covid-19 financial support.

With a $312 million allocation from the CARES Act, the Creek Nation distributed payments of up to $1,500 to citizens as economic relief.

"How many people of African descent have been affected by Covid-19 and could use that payment?" Grayson said.

Grayson estimates that there are a few thousand Creek Freedmen descendants like her who should be eligible for tribal citizenship.

In 2018, Grayson and Lenzy-Scott's organization, the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band, filed a federal lawsuit against the Creek Nation and the Interior Department. But in May 2019, the case was dismissed. Grayson applied for citizenship again in 2019 and was denied. She has filed a new lawsuit in the Creek Nation's lower court, and that case is in discovery.

Meanwhile, outside legal pressure has been building. In July, the Supreme Court reached a decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma that was built upon the agreement laid out in the 1866 Creek Treaty. In 2017, the Cherokee Freedmen won a Supreme Court case that confirmed their right to enroll as citizens of the Cherokee tribe based on the 1866 Cherokee Treaty.

But those victories haven't been a harbinger for the Creek Freedmen yet.

The Creek Nation said in a statement that "the grave injustice done to the slaves owned by some Creeks has to be acknowledged and discussed" but that blood lineage is essential to protecting the tribe's identity.

It added that blood lineage has "implications that cut to the core of self-determination."

Grayson doesn't buy the tribe's official argument of self-determination, or sovereignty, which gives the tribe the right to decide the criteria for enrollment. "Greed and racism, that's exactly what it's about," she said.

According to Roberts, the University of Pittsburgh professor, the tribe's self-determination is held up by the 1866 treaty. And the treaty also gives the Creek Freedmen a right to belong to the tribe. If anything, the Creek Nation’s treatment of Freedmen could be plainly compared to the ways the U.S. government historically disregarded the tribe’s struggle for recognition and self-determination.

"You can't pick and choose," Roberts said. "If you want treaties to be recognized and acknowledged, you need to recognize and acknowledge them, as well."

For Grayson and Lenzy-Scott, that recognition has been 41 years in the making.

Additional reporting by Aisha Turner

CORRECTION (Nov. 30, 2020, 1:30 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated how much money was allocated to the Creek Nation from the CARES Act. It was $312 million, not $28 million.

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