7 questions about Freedmen answered

Descendants of those enslaved by Native tribes are gaining political momentum. Here’s a primer on the issues surrounding Freedmen and tribal recognition.


After more than a century of disenfranchisement, Freedmen are gaining ground. Earlier this week, journalist Allison Herrera reported that the Indian Health Service has decided that Seminole Freedmen are eligible for health care, and Marilyn Vann began her groundbreaking position as the first Cherokee citizen of Freedmen status to hold a position within the Cherokee Nation government.

Why do these changes matter? If you’re new to the story, it’s a good time to catch up on its background. Here are the answers to a few questions you might have.

Ruth Adair Nash, a descendent of Cherokee Nation Freedmen, goes over family history papers with her granddaughter, Rudi Thompson, at her home in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 2006.
Brandi Simons/AP Images

Who are Freedmen?

During the early stages of colonization, members of five Southeastern tribes (the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Muskogee and Seminole Nations) began enslaving Black people to build plantation wealth, just like the European American colonizers. That’s partly why the colonizers dubbed these nations the Five “Civilized” Tribes.

When slavery ended in the Five Tribes after the Civil War, the formerly enslaved people became known as “Freedmen.” They spoke tribal languages, ate tribal food, and lived in the manner of the tribes of their former owners. By any cultural metric, they were Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Muskogee and Seminole people. The ethnic identities of the descendants of Freedmen are distinct from both African Americans and tribal members generally. But the Five Tribes have resisted formally enrolling Freedmen and their descendants as citizens and tribal members.

Didn’t Freedmen become citizens of the Five Tribes after slavery ended?

No. The tribes promised to enroll Freedmen, but didn’t. When slavery ended in the United States, it didn’t end for them. By fighting for the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War, the Five Tribes had forfeited the rights set out in earlier treaties with the U.S. So in 1866, after the Civil War ended, they signed new treaties with the U.S. government. The new treaties directed them to end slavery and extend citizenship rights to the Freedmen. 

But the tribes delayed for years, leaving Freedmen with no country — at the time, they were not recognized as either tribal or American citizens. Eventually, some of the Five Tribes did enroll the Freedmen, only to disenroll them later. 

Why won’t the Five Tribes enroll Freedmen today? 

Some of them do. As of 2017, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma enrolls and fully recognizes the rights of Freedmen descendants. The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma considers Freedmen descendants as enrolled tribal citizens, but does not extend them full rights. The Choctaw, Chickasaw and Muskogee nations neither enroll nor formally recognize Freedmen descendants.

Tribal sovereignty allows tribes to determine their own criteria for citizenship. The Five Tribes base enrollment on lineage. Applicants who can prove that they’re descended from a tribal member are eligible for membership. But in order to prove this, the would-be tribal members have to find an ancestor who was listed on the Dawes Rolls, a turn-of-the-century census of Indian Country that doubled as a vehicle of dispossession. The Dawes Rolls divided tribal members into two categories: “By blood” or “Freedmen.” The criteria used were extremely basic: When colonizers took the census in Choctaw country, they listed any brown people they saw as Choctaw “by blood.” But Black people were listed as Choctaw “Freedmen,” even though, in reality, the lines were not that clear, as many families had intermarried over the years. That means that many people who are descended from both tribal ancestors and Freedmen remain ineligible for tribal membership, simply because an ancestor was listed as a Freedmen on the Dawes Rolls.

The Cherokee Nation made history this year by striking the term “by blood” from all of its legal documents, calling the phrase “illegal, obsolete and repugnant to the ideal of liberty.” Chief Gary Batton of the Choctaw Nation also made a rare acknowledgement, describing the Dawes Rolls as “a poisonous legacy” that have “caused a myriad of membership issues.” However, Batton and the Choctaw government have yet to make any institutional changes. 

What’s the difference between Freedmen status and Freedmen descent?

Anyone who has a Freedmen ancestor is a Freedmen descendant; whether the ancestor appears on the “by blood” or the “Freedmen” rolls, it remains an ethnic and ancestral identity. But Freedmen status is an official designation, meaning that the tribe views you as part of a designated class and limits or extends your rights accordingly. Not everyone of Freedmen descent has Freedmen status. It’s Freedmen status, not necessarily descent, that’s a barrier to enrollment.

“There are persons who were elected to (the Cherokee) Tribal Council positions that were Freedmen prior to Oklahoma statehood,” explains Marilyn Vann. “Nobody's been elected to the council since then, and there may have been some persons who served on boards or commissions that had both a ‘by blood’ and a Freedmen ancestor. Those people do not have Freedmen status.”

Why is enrollment so important to Freedmen descendants?

Imagine the federal government contacted you today to inform you that your citizenship had been revoked and you were no longer eligible to be an American. Not only would you have to turn in your passport and state ID, you would no longer have the rights and protections of American citizenship. You could not, in good faith, identify yourself by the culture of this country. If you can imagine how that might feel and what it might mean for your future and your children’s future, you might get a sense of what it feels like for Freedmen descendants to be told they’re not tribal citizens. 

“This denial of acceptance is not merely symbolic,” Alaina Roberts, a historian and Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedmen descendant, wrote for HCN in March. “It can be a death sentence.” Seminole Freedmen in Oklahoma, for example, were denied access to COVID-19 vaccines earlier this year because of their status. That’s what makes this week’s Indian Health Service announcement so significant.

Tribal citizens can vote for chiefs and council members, run for office, and organize and participate in tribal events. They have access to health care, child care and other services reserved exclusively for tribal members. While unenrolled Freedmen descendants are sometimes still able to participate in community events like language classes, their inability to formally enroll pushes them to the margins of tribal society. Beyond all that, being a tribal member is a point of pride for most tribal members. It honors their place in tribal history and includes them in society today. 

How has blood quantum been wielded against Freedmen?

In objecting to Freedmen inclusion, some Natives defer to blood quantum, the notion that Native identity is tied to “purity” of blood. Any Freedmen descendant who lacks “Native blood,” the argument goes, doesn’t really belong to the tribe. 

But blood quantum is a colonial idea based on the racist pseudoscience of eugenics. Before colonization, there was no “half this, half that” measurement of tribal belonging. There was no such thing as being “part Choctaw” or “full-blooded Osage,” any more than anyone talks about being “half Oregonian and half Californian.” While most tribal members did have familial ties to the clans that formed the backbone of society, people also married into or were adopted into tribal communities. It was only after European Americans created the idea of blood quantum — largely to erase Native identity and thereby sever Indigenous land claims — that terms like “by blood” and “full blood” began to appear. This notion of Native identity has been used, generally in bad faith, to compare Freedmen to white “Pretendians” who try to claim Native identity without any legitimate grounds.

If Freedmen can enroll, can’t everybody? Where do you draw the line? 

Enrolling Freedmen would only move the boundary for enrollment by a hair’s-breadth. Instead of having to document your ancestry in the Dawes Rolls by using the “by blood” columns, you’d just have to trace your ancestry back to the Dawes Rolls, period. It makes things simpler, but still prevents Pretendians or other Indigenous wannabes from claiming citizenship. It would simply include Freedmen as full tribal citizens.

Brian Oaster (they/them) is an editorial intern at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They are an award-winning investigative journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.

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